Over a year into the pandemic, with the vaccine promising a nasty little Vax Girl Summer for anyone who wants it, I am faced with the looming terror of continued and sustained human interaction. No, I do not mean I’ve lost the skill of having meaningful interactions with other humans, because I have been doing so since the beginning of this shit. It’s the small talk with strangers and acquaintances that scares me.
Meaningful in-person conversations with my closest friends haven’t taken quite the hit described in this article which purports to give advice to people looking to speak to their friends again like a normal person and not like an alien. As the rigors of social distancing in the early stages wore on, I found myself talking more often to the people I was close to, and forging stronger relationships with those now on the shortlist of people I would die for, if asked nicely. The second and third-tier relationships that thrived on social interactions only—people I used to work with who I see at a party maybe one time a year, for example—are now obsolete. Social obligations of the sort that would make me groan in the past are now dead, thank god. My close friendships and relationships have grown stronger over the course of the pandemic, and for that, I am very grateful. What I am worried about, however, is small talk.
My world is now necessarily constricted, and so the opportunities I’d have in the past to exercise this muscle are now gone. When I go to the wine store around the corner from my apartment, I talk to the man behind the counter because it is impolite not to, but the only things I can think of to talk about are death, when the pandemic will end, and whether or not it will stop being cold outside soon. Over the summer, while at the salon for some overdue maintenance, I made panicked conversation with the woman waxing my labia about how we coped during the first phase of quarantine. The man behind the counter at Urban Outfitters told me that he loved the scent of the hand cream I was purchasing, and I muttered something that sounded like “Oh, that’s great! I’m excited to try it” in my head, but came out of my mouth sounding brusque. I appreciated his effort and did not mean to be rude. Really, I’m just out of practice.
“How are you?” is filler in the best of times, but in the worst of times, it has the possibility to wrench open the box where you’ve been hiding your feelings for an entire calendar year, dumping them out in the lap of an unsuspecting stranger who really just wanted to fulfill their part of the social contract that states it is necessary to make conversation while the transaction in question is finished. Nowadays, I avoid it, preferring to veer towards gallows humor instead. This is why the wine store man knows that I like Sancerre and would also rather lie down in traffic than think about the possibility of another Trump presidency, which is a conversation that I had with the wine store man in November.
I trust that we will all re-learn this skill as the weather warms and more people get vaccinated. But understanding that everyone is feral in their own special way will be crucial to re-entry. I will practice and I will improve. It’s going to be a rough one, but I guess we all have to try.