Four Years After the Pandemic Began, Are We All Just Awkward Now?

In the wake of COVID isolation, socializing seems so much harder than it used to be. Will the world — and Philly — ever get back to “normal” again?

awkward social interactions

Did I make it awkward? / Illustration by James Boyle

My mom is a retired therapist. When I was growing up, one of my favorites of her mantras about her profession was this: “Most people’s biggest problem is other people.” You can see where I get my ­chronic introversion. Psychological research tells us it likely is hereditary, and in my case, I believe it. Of the six members of my immediate family, only one could accurately be described as a people person. But lately, that number has doubled.

In 2022, I moved from the outer borders of Temple’s campus and onto an idyllic street in Queen Village. Something about daily life here made me want a sense of routine — to feel like a real part of a neighborhood, rather than a transplant. People were so friendly that at first, it seemed I’d gone to sleep and woken up on Sesame Street. Strangers on my block greeted me and asked how I was doing, occasionally complimenting my clothes or my hair. I wasn’t used to it, but eventually, I sort of liked it. I wanted to return their energy. The strictest of distancing guidelines had been lifted, and life seemed ripe for sociability again. Maybe it was time for me to be sociable, too. So I set out to earn the rank of “regular” at the handful of bars and coffee shops I frequented. I joked with the hardware-store owner and offered beers to the old ladies I passed on my way home from the Whole Foods. The neighborhood required that I open up a little, and I was ready to oblige. But in opening up to neighborliness, I found that I was opening up to moments of profound mortification as well.

One evening in the late summer after my move, I stopped at Southwark, a Queen Village restaurant I’d begun to patronize for some weekly quiet time with a glass of wine and a book. The staff had started to recognize me as soon as I walked in. This time, a waiter I’d never seen before appeared at my table on the patio. His name was ­Aiden. Though it was the first time I’d been attended by him, he looked oddly familiar, with his cropped sandy hair and mild but friendly expression. My evening proceeded as it usually did; the pet-nat was refreshing, and the book was good. But something was nagging at me. By the time my bill came around, I’d figured it out but resolved to keep it to myself. I settled up, said goodbye to the bartender, and rounded the corner to head home. On my way, I passed the patio’s iron doors and saw my waiter again, clearing away my glass and plate. Some spirit of impropriety possessed me in that moment. I waved him over to the entryway and said: “Has anybody ever told you you look like Tim Robinson?”

Not changing expression at all, he confirmed that he had indeed heard that before. He didn’t seem particularly pleased by the comparison, not that I expected him to jump for joy at being likened to the somewhat goofy-looking recent Emmy winner.

“Everyone loves Tim Robinson! It’s not a bad thing,” I insisted. This didn’t seem to soften the wet blanket of awkwardness that draped our exchange. I don’t remember what I said after that, just that the shame of a failed attempt at gaining social points was beginning to choke me to death. I walked home, replaying the conversation in my head and praying we would both forget what had happened.

Ahem. A few weeks later, I was at a fund-raiser. A guest bartender there looked familiar to me, and he seemed to recognize me as well. We stood for a moment, trying to place each other, and suddenly he laughed and exclaimed: “Tim Robinson!”

It was the bartender from Southwark. This was what my flub had spiraled into: a moment of social ineptitude so powerful that it had spread among the entire staff of a restaurant at which I longed to be a regular. I was the “Tim Robinson” woman who ran around comparing people to celebrities. The bartender confirmed that many of his co-workers had heard about me, and though he said some agreed on the resemblance, embarrassment made me sick to my stomach. Not sick enough to stop going, but enough that in my handful of visits to Southwark after that, I could barely look Aiden in the eye, or even in his direction.

I’ve had other clumsy encounters on my home turf since then — a paper-straw fiasco at a smoothie shop, a bit of overheard gossip at a cafe. And then there was the clown-­costume incident (more on that later). I wanted so badly to be part of the world again, but it seemed that every time I opened my mouth, my foot wound up in it. Life had become an inescapable episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I was Larry David.

But it’s not just me.

Shortly after COVID vaccines began approaching mass availability and hope for the resurrection of sociability among Americans rose, publications including the Washington Post, the New York Times and Forbes reported on the epidemic of awkwardness brought on by the pandemic. By late 2021, these outlets had decided that yes, the social world was back, but it was … different.

Awkwardness in the COVID era could easily be chalked up to the weirdness of social distancing and anxiety about illness. Yet nearly three years out from the worst of it, the awkwardness remains. In a Forbes Health Survey, 59 percent of respondents said they found it harder to form relationships since the onset of the pandemic. Research on prisoners, astronauts and hermits has shown that isolation atrophies our social skills. Now we, too, seem to have lost our grasp on basic interpersonal norms, from greeting people to splitting the bill at dinner to, yikes, comparing total strangers to famous people they resemble.

The question this raises is the same one we ask about so many facets of life since the pandemic: Will things go back to normal? Will we be awkward forever, or are we simply shaking off the cobwebs?

A number of psychological and sociological concepts could be at play here.

Some experts see a wide-scale reevaluation of the merits of even being social taking place. We all know the stats — ­Americans of every age, gender, ethnicity and income are hanging out less than ever. Leisure time is decreasing; screen time is increasing. Our “third places” — ­locations outside of home and work that enable socialization — are disappearing, and with them, so is our greater sense of community. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy diagnosed us with a “social recession.”

And while shrinkage of our social circles over time is natural, Laëtitia Mwilambwe-Tshilobo, a postdoctoral research fellow for Princeton’s Social Neuroscience Lab, explains to me that it typically doesn’t occur so quickly. “This is, in psychology, called socio-emotional selectivity theory: As people age and how they view their life shrinks, they become more selective in who they want to socialize with,” she says. “I wonder whether because of the pandemic, that realization might have happened to people much earlier, and they might be doing that much faster than they normally have.”

Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University, notes, “A lot of people, and I would put myself in this category, realized that maybe they didn’t like socializing as much as they thought they had.” In other words, he says, when face-to-face socialization paused during the pandemic, many of us expected to feel lonely and deprived of interpersonal contact, only to now come out of it and discover that we never really enjoyed dinner parties, after-work happy hours, and chitchat with the bagger at the grocery store. People are increasingly fine with the three or four friends they regularly talk to and no more. This would certainly make it seem, well, intrusive when some Nosy Nellie walks up to you at work and says you look like a nutty TV comedian.

Another possibility is that sociality seems different because the rules of engagement — and how we engage with those rules — are different. Pre-pandemic, Steinberg explains, the many social scripts we follow in everyday life were natural to us — so much so that we weren’t even aware we were following them. We didn’t have to consciously think about what to say to co-workers, how to order a drink, how to initiate or dodge conversation with a neighbor. But then we put those scripts on the shelf. In the throes of the pandemic, we adopted new social scripts and norms to adhere to isolation and social-­distancing guidelines. These norms were deeply abnormal to social creatures like us, but we (or most of us) adapted to them anyway.

“Now that all the restrictions have been lifted, you’re going back into the world, and you’ve got to relearn those things,” Steinberg says. Much as if you stop exercising or speaking a language for a time, your familiarity deteriorates, and routines have to be reintroduced, often uncomfortably at first: “There is going to be that period of awkwardness at the beginning.”

What might put a hitch in our re-­education, though, is that we may all be reacclimating to different scripts. In February of last year, New York magazine’s The Cut ran a guide listing a staggering 194 rules of etiquette for today’s society, positing that recent social turmoil (a pandemic, labor issues, the culture war, etc.) has essentially done away with any consensus we once had over what is “polite” and how our scripts should proceed. With millions of us getting back into the swing of things, opportunities abound for that dissonance to cause discomfort or even outright conflict.

While all these sociological concepts may be at work, the answer could be much more internal. Research tells us that loneliness, rates of which have exploded in recent years, can have a physiological impact on social cognition — our cognitive ability to engage with the social world and process social information. Our brains interpret isolation as mortal danger, the deprivation of a need. And while we’ve returned to a time where we can enjoy the company of others as much as we please, we’ve lost our finer touch in complex social interactions. We’re hypervigilant, oversensitive and withdrawn. (It shows even in our digital spaces. Been on Twitter lately?)

Changes in both self-perception and perception of social cues due to loneliness have been well documented. Mwilambwe-Tshilobo describes a study of the neuro-imaging of lonely people and not-lonely people in response to stimuli. The expectation was that brains looking at the same stimuli would respond similarly. But in the study, lonely brains didn’t just fail to respond to certain stimuli in the same ways not-lonely brains did. Lonely brains didn’t even respond similarly to each other.

“What this tells us — and there’s got to be a lot more work on this — is that we know social perception is changed, but there seems to be something more,” says Mwilambwe-Tshilobo. “It’s more than just lonely people negatively interpreting a social situation, either for themselves or others. How they are viewing the world seems to be very different from how not-lonely people might. These changes can have a downstream impact on how a person engages with others.”

Maybe my self-flagellation was a consequence of my physiology; my brain simply hadn’t caught up with my quest to get involved in the neighborhood. It’s not that the world has lost interest in its extroverts and Chatty Cathys — this is life as a new, post-pandemic people-person. It’s striking up conversation with anyone standing next to me in public — and then over-analyzing my every word as soon as I get home.

The extroverts in my own life agree. “All the time, I find myself thinking, ‘Did I make it weird?’” says Symone Salib, a South Philly artist and educator I befriended at a recent work event. Since the pandemic, more and more, she, too, has found herself navigating awkwardness and working overtime to make the most basic conversations fun. “As an extrovert, I have a lot of high energy,” she says. “I try to be very aware of my energy when I come into the space.”

Bartenders at my other local haunts tried to comfort me when I (naturally) regaled them with my Tim Robinson story. “A lot of times when there’s an awkward interaction, there’s one person that is completely absorbing all of the awkward energy and one person who has no idea what even happened,” Ryan Rayer, the general manager at Grace & Proper in Bella Vista, told me. (I had another inelegant moment at that very bar when I encountered the host of my favorite podcast, Kelsey McKinney of Normal Gossip, and, completely forgetting to play it cool, did a cartoonish double take: My eyes flew open, my jaw dropped, the whole nine yards. Luckily, she wasn’t totally put off by my gawkishness, and we made plans to connect later. When we did, McKinney, a recent Philly transplant, made an observation I’d been hearing since I moved here seven years ago: This is a big city, but it’s a small town. You run into the same people, information gets around, and jokes can take on a life of their own. “I think something really cool about this city is that it’s confrontational in a playful way,” she said. “It feels more common to get razzed by people you don’t know.”)

But with all these theories and studies and statistics duking it out in my head, I knew I needed the objective truth to end my distress. So one evening after a party in mid-February, I stopped by Southwark with a friend and took a seat at one of the booths. We ordered coffee and dessert, and who else but Aiden brought them to our table. Before I could finish apologizing, he assured me he wasn’t mad and said he’d be glad to talk more later. I couldn’t fit that in before my deadline, but knowing he was willing to sit down with me — and that there was probably no picture of me hanging on a wall somewhere for Aiden and other staff members to throw darts at — was a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. Now that I had a better look at him, he didn’t really resemble Tim Robinson all that much.

Awkward situations continue to find me in my quest to surrender to neighborliness, and predictions of when the social world will get back to pre-pandemic norms are speculative at best. But I still think that gab is a gift. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a long-term analysis of adult happiness, found that the key lies in good relationships. And while the road to this goal is a bit rocky at the moment, many of us haven’t given up on small talk.

“There’s a lot of intentionality now where there didn’t used to be in terms of just existing socially,” Ryan Rayer says. “People are joining groups where you go out to dinner with people you’ve never met. I met a girl a couple of months ago who said she was on a mission as an adult to ‘hard-launch friendships’ immediately.”

Mwilambwe-Tshilobo, whose research focuses on loneliness, commends such endeavors. “It can just be a bit of a mess in how loneliness impacts an individual,” she says. “But what allows people to kind of snap out of it was just getting over that barrier and trying again, going into different social situations where you’re able to connect.”

As for the return of normalcy? It might be in your best interest to get acquainted with the new normal. Though many experts are sure our difficulties will eventually subside, exactly when is hard to say. And with no end to remote work in sight for many of us, including me, the onus of socialization is now on us — and will likely remain there for the foreseeable future. Why not get a little weird with it?

I, for one, am more than willing. On Halloween weekend last year, I suggested to my friends that we take a break from clubbing and bar-crawling to go speed-dating. The flier encouraged attendees to come in costume, and while this form of people-­meeting would typically seem a bit bleak to me, for reasons I still don’t understand, I felt I’d do it more comfortably in my get-up of the past few Halloweens — as a rodeo clown. So I threw on my cowboy hat and glued on a cheap red foam nose. When I got to the bar where the event was being held — 30 minutes late — a living nightmare unfolded: I was the only one in costume. The average person would have fled the scene, tail tucked between legs — or died on the spot of shame. But in my case, the spirit of impropriety returned in full force. I doubled down and proceeded to make conversation with a handful of strangers for an hour or two. By the time I got home, I was glad I had. At least now I had another funny story for my collection. Something Salib said rings very true when I look back on that incident: “This world is so much more fun when we’re being silly and goofy and ourselves.”

Published as “Did I Make It Awkward?” in the April 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.