Last Word

Help! I've forgotten how to socialise while in self-isolation

Is anyone out there offering courses on reintegration back into society?

31 May 2020 - 00:47
How does a society in masks make a connection across the social distance?
How does a society in masks make a connection across the social distance?
Image: 123RF/ljupco

I've been trying to remember what we used to talk about before all this happened and our world narrowed down to just the one subject. There must have been plenty of interesting sh*t to shoot. We were constantly meeting up, getting together and hanging out. But what were we talking about?

Was it the weather? Maybe for half a second, but surely not longer, we're not British. Religion? Politics more likely. Maybe also our commute, relationships, gossip or office life? I'm sure recipes were in the mix too, but unlikely to the degree we discuss them now. Until this, I can't remember ever talking about banana bread cumulatively for more than a minute in my entire life. And that was really just me saying, "Ooh, banana bread, can I have a piece?" whenever I saw any.

When we were first allowed out for exercise, I'd been so starved of seeing a variety of faces in real life that I couldn't wait to make eye contact with every person I came across. Plus, I was pulsing with this gregarious need to be grateful for the few hours of shared freedom we'd been gifted.

But I noticed quickly that masks make emoting tricky. Which meant I was doing this deranged Joker-like grinning thing under mine. And it was hard to tell if anyone was smiling back under theirs. But then again, when I "over-grin" I do get crazy eyes.

Then I remembered the "smise". I have a group of fabulous friends who model. When we first started selfie-ing, they shared tips, instructions and in-person tutorials on how to "smise". It's an industry term that means "to smile with your eyes".

So I tried to smise for a bit, until I discovered that the cumulative effect of eye-contact and my learner-level smising was leading complete strangers to wonder if maybe we knew each other.

Masks create an obstruction for our built-in human facial recognition software, leading to split-second glances and double takes, followed by awkward, returned, just-in-case-I-do-know-you, semi-friendly stranger nods.

We were bad at recognising faces before masks. We're diabolical now. Putting out all these, "wait, do I know you?" vibes. Aren't you .? Nope, no, false alarm! It's not him! Look away, look away!

My morning exercise became exhausting.

We were bad at recognising faces before masks. We're diabolical now

So, I switched strategy to not making eye contact with anyone. It's now a strictly eyes-forward situation. It saves me from a) unsettling strangers b) not knowing if we know each other or not, and c) annoyance at spotting those who don't wear masks, or let them hang around their chins. The equivalent of bringing a spatula to a gun fight.

Having perfected my no-eye-contact technique, I was out walk-running in my hood, breathing back into my own face, when I spotted a friend. And even then, truth is, I didn't actually recognise her behind her mask, I recognised her dog, Max. So, we stopped for an appropriately social-distanced chat.

I had to WhatsApp her afterwards to apologise for being so weird. Over the previous eight weeks of lockdown I had clearly forgotten how to socialise. All I could do was stand there talking nonsense, panic-scrolling through my brain wondering what kinds of things normal people talk about, and what I should be doing with my hands? Do they go by your side? Or do you move them around in front of your face, making gestures to match what you're saying?

Is anyone out there offering courses on reintegration back into society? And could they preferably be held online, please? With modules on Revised Greeting Techniques; what to do when someone you know comes in for a hug, and you're too embarrassed to tell them you're not doing that anymore, so instead you sort of hug with only half your body stiff as a board, the rest pulling as far away from them as possible.

And then you add insult to injury by thinking you're surreptitiously sanitising your hands behind your back, when really everyone knows what you're doing.

They could offer step-by-step tutorials on smising and post-pandemic conversational skills. There might also be room for lessons on Zoom Party Etiquette: who talks when? How to mute and unmute your camera before speaking.

How to return your settings to normal for business calls, after you've turned your head into a potato for a laugh on a birthday party call. And, of course, a full programme on Better Background Propping for Successful Living.

Follow the author of this article, Paige Nick, on Twitter: @paigen


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