Our Social Skills Have Gotten Rusty: Tips to Sharpen Up

In the span of “one sleep,” seemingly overnight, I went from weekly travels and in-person networking events to becoming a permanent fixture attached to my desk chair. Talk about bizarre. I spent the next ~18 months, like most people, “caving” and working on this, that, or the other thing. However, leaving my house was one of the things that I did not do.

Suddenly, it was time to head to the airport and begin an 8-week slog through six events, a much-needed visit to the homeland in Canada to see my family, and an extended college tour in the middle of all that. CA, TX, FL, NC, NY, and NJ were the US destinations that were also part of that tour. Once again, it was essentially an overnight shift from being on my own, isolated in my little cocoon world yet tethered to my WiFi and zoom account, to being thrust back into the chaos of life out there.

For the last two months (which feels a lot longer than that – and shorter than that at the same time), I’ve been hopping on planes, trains, and automobiles. Airports are busy places. Planes are inefficiently boarded with people packed in like sardines. Flights are delayed with long queues on the tarmac burning ridiculous amounts of fuel while idling. And you know that there is that one passenger that’s just waiting to tear a strip out of someone because of the stress they’re going through. It’s no longer a matter of if, it’s now a matter of when a passenger and flight attendant are going to get into fisticuffs. The casinos in Vegas seemed unusually quiet, but I still had to wade through throngs of people to traverse my path from the convention center to my hotel room. And that was discombobulating.

September – October is typically a pretty intense season for conferences, and, of course, STEERus is out there networking and sharing our story. Along the way, I’ve met at least 200 new people. In-person engagement felt strange and oddly electric at the same time: you couldn’t turn off your camera and suddenly not be there. Dialogue IRL (in real life) requires a high level of mindfulness. I had a conversation, not just a fleeting and trivial exchange, with each person that I met. Many people offered their business card to me.

Yes, Gen Z, those of us who are Gen X still trade business cards from time to time, but the practice is dying. Even I favor the Linkedin QR code zap versus the traditional exchange of paper. Although I must admit that there are some wonderfully creative business cards out there and it feels a little special when I’m given one.

Communication is already challenging for many people: COVID exacerbated these challenges. Some people feel awkward about approaching a stranger. Others have speech impediments that thwart their self-confidence. Many people are simply anxious about “saying something dumb” or being judged as irrelevant. And a new phenomenon has entered our approach to networking – it’s the awkward need for human touch and connection but neither party is now sure of what the correct protocol is.

Is it all-bets-are-off for hugging? Has the elbow bump emerged as the victor over the centuries-old handshake or is the fist pump still a contender? The whole social etiquette around to touch, or to not touch, has made everything a bit weird. Not to mention the challenges of trying to hear low-talkers muffled behind their double masks. You don’t realize how much you rely on seeing a smile or reading lips to keep you engaged in a conversation – until the ability to do so has been taken away. All these factors have definitely made communication and networking a new frontier that we must all learn to navigate.

Many of the people that I spoke with cited how the conference was their first outing since the scourge of the Coronvavirus began. Several confessed to feelings of extreme awkwardness and discomfort, shocked at their own ineptitude at skills they had previously felt that they excelled in. We’re all learning and re-learning how to traverse this strange new world. And it’s not easy.

Mental health issues, including the fear (both perceived and real) around the looming dangers of COVID are key factors at play here. But they’re not the only factors. Our social skills have become rusty. All of us can benefit from a refresher, especially our next generation of leaders.

For Gen Z, a cohort reared by an electronic babysitter and primed to be rewarded for even the smallest and most inane thing, all this time caving has seriously compromised their collective ability to engage IRL. Here’s the bright spot – I noticed a significant difference in my conversations with Gen Z in August versus October.

What’s the difference? They’ve gone back to school. Once again, this generation is having dialogue in a classroom with educators and with each other. And it’s a wonderful thing.

COVID has shown us that we can no longer take things for granted. It’s accelerated our path into a hybrid world, blurring the lines between digital and in-person. At some point, each of us is going to get back out there in the world. But it will take effort to overcome our fears and re-hone skills that may have once been sharp.

And that’s okay.

There’s no rule about how you should feel and when you should feel ready to get out there. That’s a personal thing. But you should know that you’re not the only one with these feelings. And you should take comfort in knowing that your social skills, however rusty they may be, can become sharp again. Here’s a few tips on how to navigate the new normal and get back out there in the hybrid world.

Tips to Sharpen Your Social Skills

  • Acknowledge the awkwardness of your meeting; perhaps you may want to even laugh at the discomfort and joke about how you’re unsure if you should wave, hug, fist pump or whatever other gesture. The other person is most likely thinking the same thing!
  • Inquire how the other person is feeling. If you ask glibly, you can expect a glib answer. However, if your question is genuine, the other person will likely share something about their emotional state because you created a safe space for them to be at least a little vulnerable.
  • Communication styles have shifted; some people may be craving social interaction and will talk on and on. Be conscious of how the other person is receiving your words. Conversely, be a little more tolerant than usual and let the person speaking have their moment. Or two.
  • Body language may be harder than usual to interpret. A person looking down or away as they’re speaking to you may not be a sign of disinterest, it may simply be some of that social skills rust surfacing. Let it go.
  • Speak louder than usual! Yes, indeed, single masks are tough enough to speak through – double masks, are, well, twice as hard to speak through and they make it orders of magnitude more difficult to hear you. Ask the person to speak louder and encourage them to keep their mask on. You want your dialogue partner to feel safe and not intimidated into having to remove their mask to be in conversation with you.
  • Respect boundaries. Ask the other person if you’d prefer that you kept your mask on or stood six feet apart. Communication is all about building a rapport through trust.

One parting thought: the world has a lot to offer. There are so many interesting people who have done or are doing interesting things. Find ways to safely engage – and learn from them.

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