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After working tirelessly from home for over six months, Sonal Kumar has finally learnt to enjoy the time in isolation, secure in her family bubble and well adapted to the demands of a new work order. When covid-19 forced India to shut down in March, Kumar, a private school teacher was anxious about being isolated from her social and professional circles. She gradually grew comfortable with staying home, not missing the exertion of socializing or the frenetic pace of pre-pandemic life. Recently, though, noticed a change while meeting colleagues in-person to discuss a project.

“I struggled to sustain a conversation. Before lockdown, this wouldn’t have happened. Small talk came naturally and these chats often led to bigger ideas at work. Now I couldn’t think of things to say," says Noida-based Kumar.

Her experience is not uncommon. After being stuck at home for months because of lockdowns, people across the globe are finding it difficult to engage with others the way they used to before the pandemic rocked our world. The virus outbreak has left a deep impact on the way we interact, especially on that necessary lubrication for society to function well—small talk.

Research shows social skills are built over time through consistent interactions, and without regular use, they erode. People who spend prolonged periods in isolation experience social anxiety, awkwardness and withdrawal when they do resume engaging with the outside world.

That’s why, experts say, there has been a recent rise in social awkwardness: like the inability to hold a conversation or listen, the lack of interest in dressing up for office video calls, misinterpreting tone or intent in the absence of body language, intolerance and irritation.

We are now looking for shorter conversations or no communication at all. Our happy, casual chatter about trivial everyday details has been replaced with tense Zoom or WhatsApp calls.

“It will take a while for people to be able to co-create new functional spaces, which are emotionally and mentally healthy and safe," says Shaina Vasundhara Bhatia, a psychotherapist and counselling psychologist. In the meantime, she adds, “the way we work and collaborate with each other will change."

It’s a long road to ‘normal’

Perhaps the biggest reason for the declining interest in interactions, especially physical ones, is that the fear of the virus has made us more comfortable in our own shell.

Loveleen Multani, owner of a luxury travel agency “feels content at home". “When I meet people, I feel disconnected and want to get back home to do my own thing," she says. In the pre-covid-19 era, she used to pick up calls instantly; now, not so much. “I return calls much later or don’t pick up instantly, and prefer to text or receive voice messages now," she says.

Many experience anxiety or irritation if someone reaches out to shake hands, stands close or does not wear a mask.

“You can feel yourself flinch. It takes time to get used to regular interactions as they were before lockdown," explains Shamsher Mann, a business development professional at a hospitality services consultancy.

At a time when the virtual medium is our best bet to stay connected with family, friends and colleagues, the unwillingness to engage can have a huge impact on relationships, even those related to work. Take, for example, the impact of something as simple as not being properly dressed for a Zoom office meeting or not turning on the camera for a video call with potential clients or senior managers.

Ayesha Fernandez, a business development professional at a global IT company, says there have been instances where her co-workers have appeared on video call screens “like they’ve tumbled out of bed or are reclining on a sofa. Many turn off their cameras and we have to convince them to come on screen. At a time like this, even the little connection one might feel is gone when talking between black boxes."

The intent behind a disabled video could be interpreted negatively. At a physical meeting, it would be a sign of disrespect if attendees left or checked their phones while someone spoke.

“It’s difficult to tell if people are truly engaged if they can’t be seen on video," Fernandez says.

The absence of in-person or video interactions also dulls our ability to interpret non-verbal cues.“Without body language, it feels like fifty percent of the connection is eliminated and you are talking at a screen. It feels unreal," says Mann.

Part of the problem is also the blurring of the lines between professional and personal lives. The constant encroachment could drive people to block connection. “You are switched on all day. Everyone is in your personal space. People assume you’re available as you are home," he says.

Recent studies have shown that people are overworking from home, making them more socially unavailable. Does this mean our social interactions cannot be regained to the depth and ease of the pre-pandemic era? Can we never go back to talking about something not important? Experts say we can, but with time and a willingness to reconnect.

Bhatia recommends small steps to restore balance. “If a video call with the entire office team is overwhelming, begin by reaching out to the person you report to. Let them know of what you’re experiencing so that they can support you," she says. Her other recommendations include non-human interactions as a stepping stone, spending time with pets or plants if people are initially overwhelming, knowing your tipping point, and sticking to the basics of a routine, healthy eating, adequate sleep and exercise.

Regular connection and being honest with others about personal time and space also help. “Wanting some alone time is not a concern, since there is an element of choice attached to it." says Bhatia. “But if the person is having a hard time connecting with others, it could be an unmet need that will require exploration in a safe professional space with a therapist."

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