LLast year, on what would turn out to be my last night out for a while, I found myself in a dreaded situation: in a friend’s glass, talking to a complete stranger. Shortly after our conversation, my brain began searching for escape routes. I had a full glass and there was a line for the bathroom, so I put my acting skills to the test and told this perfectly harmless person that I, a man who has never smoked, “needed a cigarette.”
I’m comfortable admitting that before Covid, I didn’t think “meeting new people” was on my list of favorite hobbies. My Golden Globe-worthy interpretation of “man with a cigarette” suggests that I could possibly (definitely) be guilty of dismissing new people before meeting them, especially if there was no immediate “spark” between us. As much as I love my friends, maintaining relationships takes time, so why open up to someone new if there isn’t an obvious connection?
Then came the pandemic. Like many people, he was restricted to one year of limited socializing with a very small circle of friends. I’ve met a handful of new colleagues at Zoom in the last 12 months, but I can’t recall a meaningful connection in person with someone new.
To my surprise, now I want to meet new people more than ever. I’d love to hook up with a friend of a friend at the pub, a new colleague over a slightly lukewarm white wine after work, or a mischievous stranger at a nightclub. I miss having unexpected things in common with people, but also hearing new perspectives on issues unrelated to my own experiences. In a polarized time when we gravitate toward news that affirms our own worldview, random in-person encounters, even with people we don’t like, can broaden our social, intellectual, and political horizons.
The feeling of connection with a new person can be exciting. TO Study 2018 from Columbia University explored what happened to the brains of young adults when they met new people and found that two central nodes in the brain’s “reward circuit” lit up when subjects felt positive emotions toward someone new. Even 10 minutes of social interaction with a new person. increases cognitive performance. Other studies have linked the new social interaction with better social and emotional well-being and improved life satisfaction.
According to psychology and neuroscience researcher Ajdina Halilovic, it is normal for our brains to lose new interactions in these times. “With the danger of oversimplifying, that sense of ‘lost’ interactions is actually your brain searching for an experience that once felt good. We need to connect, ”he explains. “When we can’t, we usually end up wanting it.”
Of course, meeting new people can also cause anxiety. Our brains remember negative interactions more strongly and in more detail than the positives, so when it doesn’t work out, we stick with it. For many, a year of reduced interaction and fragile mental health can make the prospect of a summer of socializing seem overwhelming. Psychodynamic psychotherapist Lina Kaoud believes this is a natural response to a year of survival and insecurity. “We have been constantly reminded of how dangerous it is to meet and be together,” he says. “So any existing anxiety about letting someone new in could increase and intensify.”
Another thing I’m dealing with is the pressure to come out of lockdown as an improved version of myself. While life has been slow and peaceful, I have realized how much energy I previously put into presenting to the world what I thought was the best of me. See people on social media who have had a “confinement glow”I worry that she should have been working to be more attractive as well. Then I feel pangs of guilt for even thinking of such superficial things in a year of death and loss.
Kaoud says navigating the post-Covid world is sure to be confusing, because our emotions “will be determined by our own individual experiences of confinement.” Then there will be uncertainty about basic things like whether to resume formal handshakes at work or hugs with friends. But as the risk of death and illness dissipates, she believes, social anxiety “will slowly decline to more ‘normal’ levels.”
The next time I meet someone new, I won’t care if they’ve been locked up lifting weights or learning another language. I will be happy to be able to spend time with them safely. At this point, I’d even settle for redoing that conversation with the person I pretended to avoid addiction to nicotine. Looking back, there’s a chance my talk wasn’t exactly exciting for them either, but at least they were willing to give me a chance.
I may not have had a “confinement glow” in the aesthetic sense, but I have learned about myself. Before the pandemic, I hadn’t realized that new people were a vital part of my social ecosystem. As the end of the lockdown nears and we begin to think about what our “new normal” will be, I am prepared to find the courage to show strangers a less cautious version of myself. Will I keep finding some people annoying or boring? Of course. But I hope I can give more new connections a chance in hopes of finding the spark that makes life feel exciting.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism