The expert guide to remembering the art of small talk

Heyyyyy! How are you? Long time no see! What have you been upto? Nothing? Me too! Since March 2020? What a coincidence! Great to see you though. Just a pity we’re so used to isolation and Zoom that seeing you in real life has rendered me a stammering dummy who has forgotten how to do eye contact. With sweaty palms. Really? You too?

Welcome to post lockdown. (Well, almost.) For the longest time now – longer than anyone can remember, given how the last time this happened it was over by 1920 – we have been learning exactly how zoo animals feel, forever confined in small spaces. We have been Zoom animals, caged up with wifi and Deliveroo. It would not be unreasonable to say that our social skills may have become a bit rusty; the idea of diving headlong into a mad social whirl may actually feel a bit overwhelming. For now, coffee with friends feels like Glastonbury.

Our increased dependence on wifi made lockdown almost a bit sci-fi. Before we’d ever heard of Covid, daily opportunities for social micro chit-chat were already creeping towards mechanisation: self service tills, tap-on tap-off public transport, online shopping, banking, dating, gaming. Since March 2020, our chit-chat muscle atrophied even further; we’ve become so accustomed to being a Brady Bunch square -sorry, Millennials, you’ll have to look that one up – that we may have forgotten how to interact in real life. We keep expecting the other person to freeze, or mute themselves, or turn their camera off. They won’t be doing this because they’ll be standing in front of us, waiting for us to say something interesting. What happens now?

Do our words dry in our throats to a trickle, or gush forth in a stream of consciousness, sharing every unexpressed thought we have been storing for the past year and a bit, and leaving the other person verbally pebble-dashed as they inch away from us, side-eyeing the nearest escape route?

Or are we on mute ourselves, having forgotten how to do actual talking to an actual person in real life? Easy chatter frozen solid? Come on, we’re Irish. Surely this kind of social awkwardness only happens to our traditionally more reserved Brexitland neighbours. But no matter how long and hard you’ve snogged that stone in Blarney, the fact remains that we have never experienced this kind of zoo life before. Even the introverts have had enough. It’s time to shoot the breeze again.

Yet the usual opener – what have you been upto – is currently unfit for purpose, as we do that awkward are-we-hugging dance, only to be pointedly offered an elbow. And then the anxious smiles and embarrassed explanations; yes, granny has had both her jabs but we’re still not taking any chances. Bit nervous still. Bit antsy being out and about. Bit freaked at the whole idea of crowds, which we now define as three people or more. We’re like those eels that live in sea caves, who dart back in to hide when anything swims past.

And so to conversation. Actual talking, involving nuance, pauses, body language, non verbal cues, eye contact. Nobody – NOBODY – wants to hear about R rates, working from home, lockdown hair, home décor projects, Zoom meetings, or effing sourdough. Possible exceptions could be made for problematic alcohol consumption (because everyone loves talking about other people’s drinking); or lockdown puppies (because unless you’re monster, everyone loves puppies); or vaccinations (providing you share a similar outlook. Otherwise, stick to the weather).

“There may well be a fear of being around new people, of being around unmasked people,” says Mindstream life coach Ariana Dunne. “Such fears will be prevalent as we re-emerge back into society – it will take time. Vaccinations will help to reassure us. We’ll need to work on ourselves in terms of accessing accurate information sources, and communicating clearly any fears we may have, as well as focusing on finding the joy in small things.” For digital natives – Gen Z, born after 1995 – the digitalisation of everyday life (school, work, socialising) has come at a time when their everyday social skills are still in neurological development. Getting older people online during lockdown has sometimes involved practice, patience and perseverance – I’m being diplomatic here – but what about getting younger people away from it? Digital life, already the norm for younger people, took over completely in the past year.

“If children and young people spend all their time online, they’re not learning the social skills needed for brain development,” says Oxford evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar. 

We’re not fully competent adults until we’re 25, and the skills required to handle our complicated social world can only be learned through practice. This means in real life, not online.

Also, that we live in smaller communities rather than mega cities means that we have tended to be more compliant and observant of lockdown requirements compared with larger countries; it also means that fear has spread faster than the actual virus. However, as we re-emerge, blinking into the sunlight, this sense of community can only be an asset.

“We operate much more collectively in Ireland, unlike the UK where there is more of a tendency towards silos,” says Ariana Dunne. “We’ve been very protective of our vulnerable, and very aware that even one death affects us all. But we will get out there again, and any social anxiety will eventually be forgotten. Already you can feel a great sense of community when you’re out walking – people who don’t even know each other are greeting one another enthusiastically because we’re all so happy to see each other.” The thing is not to pressure ourselves – after all that time spent indoors talking to our house plants, we are bound to feel a bit socially awkward. It’s perfectly normal to not feel perfectly normal.

“As humans, we adapt to whatever environment we find ourselves in,” says clinical psychologist Eva Doherty. “People will have become habituated to not socialising, and developed their own lockdown routines. So the best thing you can do is to give yourself a break, and a bit of self-understanding. We are emerging into what is genuinely a new normal, which is not the same as the old normal. If we have expectations that everything will be the same as it was before, we may struggle. We may feel disappointed.

“This experience will have changed us, and there will be constant reminders of what we have lived through, like still wearing masks and socially distancing. Packed pubs and restaurants are still some way off. And so while we will be delighted to see each other, it will be a new experience.” Professor Doherty compares this collective experience to what individuals go through when they return from, say, maternity leave. What makes our current circumstances so unprecedented is that the whole world seems to have been on extended maternity leave simultaneously; and as anyone who has spent too much time alone with small children knows, it can temporarily rob you of conversational coherence. You just babble, then trail off.

Here’s a trick. Forget trying to string sentences together, and instead ask the other person all about themselves. Everyone loves talking about themselves, so use it to your advantage. Not questions relating to immediate circumstances – as we have established, ‘what have you been up to is a conversational dead duck – but more open-ended questions about how they are. How they’re feeling, how they’re experiencing things. Not like a therapist, because that’s above most people’s pay grade, but with a bit more depth than talking about the same-old-same-old. We are all a bit bored with that now. Or depending on how close you are, you could just come clean and admit that you’ve forgotten how to talk to anyone other than the dog, and are feeling a bit tongue-tied. There’s nothing like an admission of vulnerability to get the other person’s oxytocin – and conversation – flowing.

“We will bounce back,” says Ariana Dunne. “We’re a nation of talkers and huggers, with smaller communities and strong family ties. Our sense of camaraderie will overcome our fears. The pubs reopening will help, and the sunshine will help.” Like I said, we’re Irish.

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