I am staring at a WhatsApp message. It’s from one of my closest friends and contains dates and restaurant names. In the run-up to lockdown easing, she has been making reservations for dinners and drinks like her life depends on it. I know she will see that I have read it. Sometimes I envy older generations, whose social interactions and correspondence were not so surveilled and prone to overanalysis. “Excited,” she types, seeing that I have not yet responded. I put my phone down and look out of the window at the sunset – one of the few things that has punctuated the endless days of this past year. I want to reply but I can’t. Or, perhaps, I don’t want to.
These days, I spend almost all of my time at home, in my one-bedroom flat. A little over a year ago my world was wider. I slept at home but I lived outside of it – in coffee shops, the office, pubs, restaurants, other people’s houses. In one pub local to me, I was what you’d call a regular, on first name terms with the staff. I had a similarly cordial relationship with the guy who ran my favourite restaurant. There was nothing special about me, about my experience. To be a regular is, by its nature, to be typical. Aspirational, perhaps, but in the most average way of all. That’s why the plot lines of long-running but unremarkable sitcoms spin out from a place where all the characters’ lives converge: Central Perk in Friends, The Planet in The L Word.
Off screen, in real life, these spaces are known as the ‘third place’. The concept was developed by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg in 1989 as a way of labelling our shared social environments which are necessary for creating a sense of community and enabling civic engagement in society. Your home is the first place, your work is the second place and communal spaces – pubs, cafés, restaurants – are third places. These social settings, Oldenburg wrote, “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work” and, far from being superficial, they are at once the foundation of a functioning democracy and crucial to our wellbeing because they offer psychological support.
Life without community produced, for many, a lifestyle consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social wellbeing and psychological health depend upon community.
“Life without community,” Oldenburg said, produced “for many, a lifestyle consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social wellbeing and psychological health depend upon community.” Perhaps it is unsurprising that, according to the Office for National Statistics, almost half of adults (48%) reported that their wellbeing was being affected by the pandemic, during which those of us who are not key workers have lived only in our first places. That figure increased to 81% for those who had experienced some form of depression and/or some form of anxiety. And those whose incomes had been impacted, leaving them unable to afford unexpected expenses, as you would expect, were more likely to report experiencing anxiety and/or depression.
Sometimes I think that I’ve been happier with less over the past year – fewer social obligations, commitments, hangovers in my calendar. Before all of this I had, by all accounts, a thriving but normal social life. I went out, I stayed in, enjoyed both and thought little of any of it. But something happened to me in the first lockdown. Or maybe I made it happen?
Days would pass. I saw no one. I came to dread my phone calls and Zoom quiz invitations, not only because they were full of news of what by then felt to me like mementos of a remote, old life – relationship dramas, break-ups, things which required attention – but because people would ask what I had been doing and the answer was “nothing”. Had I forgotten how to socialise? Did I just not want to?
This week, as Britain returns to its beloved third spaces – namely pub gardens but also the outdoor seating areas of restaurants – while some people are waiting at the start line, raring to go, others are apprehensive and anxious. For months at a time we have been shut off from our communities, from in-person interactions with the people and places who held up a mirror to us and helped us to understand our own existence. So if on re-entry to the new old world, you feel a little paralysed by the enervation of having had a shrunken social circle, seen only in limited social settings for so long, you’re not alone.
Dr Heather Sequeira is a consultant psychologist. She explains that she is seeing “increased referrals of people seeking help for heightened social anxiety, social stress and, interestingly, intense worries about their appearance.” Anxiety about our looks, Heather notes, has been termed ‘Zoom dysmorphia’ and is likely down to having been so exposed to our own faces over Zoom and video calls. “I now have several new clients with this problem,” she explains, “and I am now seeing this, which once was more associated with the younger ‘Snapchat and Instagram filter generation’, affecting a far wider age spectrum of society. People who have never had these issues before are reporting very high rates of social anxiety and concerns (even obsessions) after excessive exposure to their own and others’ images on screens – repeatedly scrutinising, comparing and analysing appearance.”
Almost half of adults (48%) reported that their wellbeing was being affected by the pandemic.
All of this change, combined with the fact that we might have seen more of our own reflections than of other people, makes the return to face-to-face socialising understandably daunting. “During the past year,” Heather continues, “we have partially adapted or at least got more used to a lower level of ‘social data’. Our brains have become ‘used to’ processing less data in social situations, much of the time.” This is because so many of our interactions have been filtered through computer and phone screens.
When we connect from behind a screen, Heather adds, “we don’t pick up the full subtleties of facial communication and body posture – our brains have simply had less to go on. Plus, those infrequent face-to-face social interactions that we have experienced tend to be ‘transactional’ rather than social: this means social experiences have largely been more predictable, for shorter periods and involving a far narrower range of social dynamics.” In person, there’s so much more to take in: people talk over each other, they smile, they laugh, their bodies wordlessly express a whole range of emotions.
“As we slowly return to face-to-face socialising, our brains are having to get used to the ‘full data set’ again,” Heather explains. At first, this might feel overwhelming and exhausting. We might feel anxious and we might feel that we want to avoid it altogether.
“It is quite common to feel annoyance, agitation, anxiety etc. as we get used to having to process the full data set again,” she continues. “The example of annoyance at people talking over each other is interesting. My view is that we probably found this behaviour slightly irksome prior to lockdown but that this response has now increased to the level of annoyance and irritation because your brain is having to work far harder (at a non-conscious level) to filter out the excess social stimulation where people compete for our attention while also suppressing the desire to tell people to shut up and speak one at a time.”
The introverted side of many of us may have experienced a welcome reprieve from ‘battling’ against social stresses, putting on a ‘confident face’ and constantly having to put ourselves into social situations.
Dr Heather SequeirA
If all of this sounds exhausting, it’s because it is. And it might explain why the return of socialising in the third places we have so missed and longed to revisit feels like a double-edged sword. Heather notes that another issue is that this shift will “exacerbate things for the more introverted side of ourselves”. A large percentage of people are what’s known as ambiverts. This means they have a mix of extroverted and introverted tendencies. During the lockdowns, however, Heather says that “the introverted side of many of us may have experienced a welcome reprieve from ‘battling’ against social stresses, putting on a ‘confident face’ and constantly having to put ourselves into social situations.” It follows that our stress, agitation and anxiety may significantly increase once we go back into a world that values sociability.
Those of us who are now in our 30s are the first generation to carry the burden of always knowing what our friends and acquaintances are doing because of social media, of seeing other people’s lives unfold in real time on a loop. It has spawned a fear of missing out (FOMO) and prompted others to counteract that by trying to find the joy of missing out (JOMO). But beyond the acronyms designed to give us a concise handle on complex feelings lies a more fundamental truth about our experience of modern life: because everyone is visible, because we are visible, our behaviours and identities are always being constructed and justified in relation to other people’s lives. During these lockdowns, that has been diminished.
It will take some time to readjust, to navigate social situations in third places again. Those of us who have mostly been at home will have to take time to define ourselves as part of a community, remembering and, even, reevaluating who we are when we are out in the world, surrounded by other people and not alone. “Social situations may initially give us the ‘introvert hangover’,” Heather explains. “They might make us more tired, depleted of energy, more annoyed and we may experience more falling out or disruptions in our alliances with people around us.” However, it will get easier.
“This stress response should gradually reduce over the weeks that follow,” Heather adds. “Just being aware of these factors and the reasons why we are experiencing increased stress can help. Our brains are just adapting back again to full-on socialising, so bring this knowledge and awareness to the situation and be kind to yourself and others. It will all gradually feel more back to normal as the weeks go on.”
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