Jun 18, 2021 - Health

The less than welcome return of social obligations

Illustration of a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on an open door.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The curbing of the pandemic in the U.S. means the return of dinner parties, movie dates and brunch. But it also means the return of things you don't really want to do.

What's happening: Many of us spent over a year stuck in our homes by default — not having to decline social engagements we weren't keen on. Now it's time to re-learn the fine art of saying "no."

  • "I don’t know that there’s been another time in modern history that we’ve all had time to go home and think," says Mark Leary, a psychology professor at Duke University.
  • "We’ve realized that there’s a certain portion of our social interactions that were never all that rewarding."

"But now there’s pressure on people to come back out just as there was pressure to stay home," says Rebecca Adams, a sociologist at UNC Greensboro. "We'll have to accommodate more and more casual relationships." And that's tiring.

The big picture: Our brains are wired to maintain a finite number of close social connections — around 15, Leary says.

  • That's why spending the last year and a half with just close friends and family felt comfortable for many of those who could do it.
  • On top of that, many people learned to fill their free time with other hobbies, like cooking or making art or running, and they're not willing to give up those hobbies to make room for more social engagements, especially if they're not very fulfilling.

What they're saying: "There are people at work that are perfectly fine, but I don’t want to talk to you at the copy machine again," says Leary. "I'd rather do anything else."

  • The pandemic is no longer a viable excuse to blow off the friends or acquaintances that you don't particularly care about seeing. And it won't get you out of seeing that weird uncle at this year's Thanksgiving.

The stakes: For introverts or people with social anxiety who isolated last year, the return to normal comes with even more burdens. The pandemic was a respite from the daily stressors of interacting with lots and lots of people, and now they're being called back to work or social functions.

  • "Even people who weren't socially anxious before, a lot of us got really rusty," says Alexandra Werntz, a clinical psychologist in Virginia. "What was normal pre-pandemic is no longer normal for a lot of us."
  • "It’s a shame that people have such a difficult time saying no," Leary says. Try being honest with people and gently explaining to people that you're overbooked or easing your way back into socializing after the pandemic, he says.

What to watch: The pandemic is likely to have a lasting impact on our social lives. Look for people to decrease the number of social interactions they have by up to 20%, according to Leary.

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