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Navigating the Social Awkwardness of Reopening

7 cognitive behavioral therapy exercises to sharpen your social skills.

Over the past few weeks, many in-person activities have slowly resumed across the country. We have ventured into restaurants, played organized sports in the park, and even sent our children back to daycare, to name a few. As a psychologist, I find this exciting because in-person activities give us that rush of adrenaline and that jolt of oxytocin that are so critical to our emotional and physical well-being.

But, resuming in-person activities has also been challenging for many of us. Our social skills are... well, rusty. Most of us have had in-person interactions with only a handful of people and in somewhat planned and predictable ways. We’ve talked to the cashier at the store on our weekly grocery trip, we’ve chatted with the doorman twice a day when taking out the dog for a walk, or we’ve nodded at the barista during our morning coffee run.

So, as we begin to participate in more unplanned and unstructured social interactions, we’re understandably feeling some discomfort, if not full-on anxiety: “Should I have asked a follow-up question?” “Do I have nothing to talk about anymore?” “How do I actually show someone I’m interested in what they are saying?” “How do I ask someone to pull up their mask?”

So, today, I’d like to share seven exercises to help you resharpen your social skills during this time of reopening. As always, they are based on principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

1. Set realistic expectations. We’ve been socially distancing for almost half a year. That’s a very long time. Let me say that again: that is a very long time. So, it’s crucial to set up expectations accordingly. Imagine that you had an injury and couldn’t exercise for six months. Would anyone expect you to get back to peak performance the second the injury is healed? Not at all. It would take time to rebuild your strength and increase your range of motion. So, why think differently about social skills? Why not give yourself the time and space to rebuild them? Here’s what I propose: start small. For example, if you run into someone, try answering their questions with slightly longer answers. Or when you are at a store, try asking the salesperson an additional question. Take a look around and see if you can spot opportunities to take gradual, incremental steps.

2. Practice making eye contact. During most in-person interactions people are likely wearing masks, so we can’t rely on smiles or other facial expressions to communicate how we feel. This means eye contact has become more important than ever. But we have likely gotten out of practice as we have spent so much time on video-based meetings. (What constitutes eye contact during a video call? Looking at the camera? Looking at the person on the screen?) So, here’s what I suggest. Start by looking at people in the eyes for a few seconds, then move your gaze for a few more seconds, and then come back to their eyes. There’s no hard and fast rule of how to do this because everyone has their own comfort level when it comes to eye contact, but you basically want to strike that balance between feeling a connection with the person without staring for too long.

3. Try smizing. Coined by supermodel Tyra Banks when she was in the TV show America’s Next Top Model, smizing entails smiling with your eyes. That’s it. Easy as that! Squint your eyes in a soft and inviting way. Practice in front of the mirror. Then take a few selfies and ask your friends for feedback. Practice with people you know. Eventually, start practicing with strangers. And, since we’re at it, see if you can find the humor in these awkward social encounters. A joke can go a long way in terms of fostering closeness with others.

4. Practice talking through your mask. Let’s face it. Talking through the mask can be awkward. It’s annoying and it can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. We can’t always hear what the other person is saying and they can’t always quite make out what we said. So, what do we do? Once again, get in front of the mirror and practice talking through the mask. Record yourself and watch it. Are you enunciating clearly enough? Are you talking loudly enough? You might want to test out different masks too. Also, practice asking people to repeat themselves. I know it can be awkward to interrupt someone mid-sentence to ask them to repeat what they just said, but you gotta do it. Otherwise, you’ll get lost in the conversation.

5. Speak up when uncomfortable. You might find yourself in situations in which other people might not be abiding by the same level of social distance as you. They might not be wearing a mask at all or they might be wearing it loosely. Or perhaps they might be getting too close, invading your six feet radius. When this happens, it can be uncomfortable to respond. Do we speak up and risk potentially offending them? Or do we keep quiet and endure our anxiety in silence (while also potentially putting ourselves at greater risk for catching COVID-19)? Obviously, we have to speak up. But, it is certainly difficult. So, here’s where practice comes in handy one more time. Practice how you will tell people to respect your COVID boundaries. Practice asking people to put on their mask, pull them up, and keep distance. I know, it’s awkward, but the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll get at it and then more confident you’ll feel in your social interactions (and the safer you’ll be).

6. Give other people the benefit of the doubt. We’re all in this together: Nobody knows how to navigate this new world. So, before assuming that other people are acting weird because they don’t like you or that they are not following certain social distancing rules because they don’t care about you, take a minute to remind yourself that it’s quite likely that this might have nothing to do with you. Further, in some cases, they might not even be doing it intentionally—I have certainly forgotten to pull up my mask once or twice. If it helps, remind yourself of the “fundamental attribution error,” which is a concept from social psychology that basically states that we tend to de-emphasize the role of context when we evaluate people’s behaviors. Instead, we attribute much more intentionality than is probably there. So, when you find yourself jumping to conclusions about other people’s intentions, take a break. See if you can give them the benefit of the doubt. The less you stress about why other people are doing what they are doing, the less anxious you’ll feel!

7. Be gentle with yourself. Last but not least, and related to my point above: 2020 has been a tough year. None of us has ever experienced a global crisis of this magnitude and there’s no blueprint to follow. Life has become more uncertain, stressful, and anxiety-provoking than ever. So, when you hear your inner critic telling you that you are not doing enough, take a step back. Breathe. Try anchoring yourself in the here and now. See if you can remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can. Breathe in and out. Re-read this post and practice all of these skills. And repeat.