Caution! We’re socially awkward

Shriya Mohan | Updated on September 25, 2020 Published on September 25, 2020   -  ISTOCK.COM

The pandemic has made us all shuffle our feet at the prospect of daily social exchanges. In the absence of non-verbal gestures and physical touch, a stunted social agility has allowed for mistrust and insecurities that fray our sense of belonging

* How do we parent during a pandemic? How do we express affection or empathy without a hug or a handshake? Is it acceptable to tell another person to keep a safe distance from us without sounding rude? How do we trust a stranger whose face is hidden behind a mask? How do we react when our own parents or family seem uneasy about our plans of dropping by? And what do we make of the mental conflict when we reach office excitedly only to realise that we want to make a dash for home?

*Social awkwardness is the feeling we experience when we believe that our desire for being accepted by others is threatened in a given situation.

Manas* loves trivia. He likes to share facts on dinosaurs, outer space, large words and, most recently, how the novel coronavirus makes the human body sick. What he doesn’t quite understand is why he can’t invite his friends over for a play date. Or why they say ‘no’ to his offer of visiting them. He still doesn’t know exactly why, two months ago, he couldn’t go on a picnic to Delhi’s Sunder Nagar Nursery with other children from his housing society.

“Of course I knew it was because of me,” says his mother Roopa*, a pulmonologist at one of Delhi NCR’s leading Covid-designated hospitals, referring to the sudden cancellation of the picnic by her friends, who had planned the group outing. She knows that her role as a front-line health worker who deals with Covid-19 patients exacts a brutal personal price. But she had hoped that perhaps her five-year old wouldn’t have to pay for it.

Over the months, as the pandemic swelled, Roopa has seen her friend circle retract proportionately. Her eagerness to protect her child from unwanted glances spills into her dos and don’ts for him when visiting the neighbourhood park: Don’t touch the monkey bars, don’t touch the swing, keep your distance from other children and so on. She is equally eager to shield herself from anxious neighbours. While she is mandated to leave for work in a PPE kit, she can’t get herself to look the part. “As if it wasn’t already awkward enough... I didn’t want to make my neighbours uncomfortable,” Roopa says. In the meantime, lack of social interaction with anyone outside home has sent Manas coiling into fight or flight mode.

I’m blue: For children social distancing is interpreted as rejection at a personal level   -  ISTOCK.COM


Covid-19’s crippling impact hasn’t just impaired lung capacity, but also the social fabric of our lives. Social distancing has made us all shuffle our feet awkwardly around what were, till recently, routine daily exchanges and physical gestures. There are questions that gnaw at the back of our head: How do we parent during a pandemic? How do we express affection or empathy without a hug or a handshake? Is it acceptable to tell another person to keep a safe distance from us without sounding rude? How do we trust a stranger whose face is hidden behind a mask? How do we react when our own parents or family seem uneasy about our plans of dropping by? And what do we make of the mental conflict when we reach office excitedly only to realise that we want to make a dash for home? Along with soreness of throat, loss of smell and fatigue, the dreaded virus has also infected us with anxiety that spirals during physical proximity with human beings.

Social awkwardness, according to psychology professor Joshua W Clegg of City University of New York, is the feeling we experience when we believe that our desire for being accepted by others is threatened in a given situation. In a paper he published in 2012, Clegg said it’s a feeling that incites us to turn inward and increase our self-monitoring. Whether that’s misconstruing someone’s behaviour or longing for contact, yet not enjoying enjoying the company of others, the term essentially, refers to losing agility in social situations.

Ganesh N Devy, a cultural activist best known for his work on the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), feels that one of the biggest telling signs of awkwardness, in the wake of the pandemic, is the way the average phone conversation opens. When we ask someone ‘how are you?’, there is a brief pause before we hear them say they’re fine. “There is a moment of hesitation because one knows they aren’t fine... If a good semantic analysis were to be made of that pause, it would reveal that humans are worried if they belong to society or if they are only frayed individual members. Human society is severely damaged and fragmented and it reflects in that awkward pause,” he says.

Out of touch: Humans have become untouchable in the wake of social distancing   -  ISTOCK.COM


Socially undernourished

While awkwardness is felt across all age groups, children perhaps bear its biggest brunt.

“Children under the age of 12 cannot cognitively think from another person’s perspective, which is a mature capability. They take everything personally,” says Nupur Dhingra Paiva, a Delhi-based child and adolescent psychologist. So the friend “who refused to meet” is interpreted as “rejection at a personal level”.

Between the introverts and extroverts, the latter are the worse-off, adds Paiva. “Extroverts get a high from interacting with people. They’re the life of a party. But there is no party,” Paiva says. Distress at a time like this, she notes, manifests itself in children through disturbed sleep cycles and eating patterns. In adolescents there’s more withdrawal and fatigue. “Everywhere meltdowns and tempers are high and the kids pick up on the tone of the anxieties around them. They know that something is off,” she says.

But something else is off too — physical touch. In the Indian context, according to Devy, touch is an integral part of greeting — whether it’s a handshake, a friendly hug, or the traditional practice of touching the feet of elders. “Humans have become untouchable. Touch is out of life. For Indian children, this takes away a great deal of social experience,” he says. These days it’s common to extend a hand in greeting and quickly withdraw it. “The awkwardness in encounters leaves an indelible mark on our social transactions,” he adds.

In a reported experiment conducted in the US in 1944, researchers set out to determine the impact of affectionate touch and communication on children. Twenty newborn infants were placed in a special facility which was scrupulously clean and sterile with caregivers instructed to attend to all their physiological needs, but have nothing beyond. The babies were well fed, bathed and their diapers changed, but they weren’t looked in the eye, cuddled or spoken to. The experiment was halted after four months because some of the subjects were already dead. There was no physiological cause behind the deaths. The babies who didn’t survive the experiment had simply given up. As they neared the end, they showed no signs of trying to engage with caregivers or make a change in expression.

It’s hardly a fair comparison, you may argue, to the children witnessing the 2020 pandemic. But experts point that social interaction is like a balanced diet and children (as well as adults) aren’t getting the full range of human interactions they need to feel stimulated. And the internal undernourishment has triggered awkwardness.

Paiva believes that being candid with children regarding the current situation is wiser than trying to overcompensate for the same by being “all joyous”. “Mental health is a capacity to acknowledge reality, so if reality is horrible, and if we’re saying we feel horrible, it makes sense,” she says. It’s best to tell them that things are uncertain and that we don’t have answers to simple queries such as reopening of schools. “If we protect our children too much from reality they get bad at dealing with it. Then you have children who are under-resourced to deal with life,” she says.

The untouchables

Devy points out that one of the first issues to exacerbate social awkwardness in India, specifically, is the term ‘social distancing’. “For many Indians, social distancing has been an essential part of Vedic Hinduism. Many saint-poets had to struggle to free humans from it. During Covid-19, the memory of that kind of social distancing [based on one’s caste and occupation] has resurfaced. The use of that term [gives] a certain licence and validity to the idea of untouchability,” he says. Devy recommends the use of ‘safe distancing’ or ‘physical distancing’ in order to drive the message home.

‘Social distancing’ has done enough damage, he alleges. It is why domestic helps, workers in the service sector or any poor person belonging to a lower class and caste are being eyed with more suspicion by the affluent than within members of the same social class. This, despite the well-known fact that the virus didn’t emerge from the shanties of the poor.

When the housing societies of Noida decided to freeze the entry of domestic helps for a period of two months during the first phase of the lockdown in April and May, many of them returned to their villages for lack of employment. But a few, such as Lovely Bibi, stayed back, hoping the ban would lift soon. Bibi was a domestic help who cleaned the homes of six families and earned nearly ₹20,000 a month. But after the lockdown eased and the societies opened their gates only wide enough to let part-time workers re-enter, she was in for a rude shock. “Most of my employers refused to even answer my call. Only one family asked me to come back,” Bibi says. The reduced income has made things doubly difficult for the family of four. And because it is a job she cannot afford to lose, she hesitates to call in sick. The slightest rise in body temperature or symptoms of a cough or a cold could invite a ban on her daily visits to the society. The nervousness is hard to overcome each morning as she stands in a queue to be checked at the gate, especially when she knows that two degrees of temperature difference could leave her stranded.

Trust deficit

Far away from the world of staggered entry, Irfan Mir, a chemistry teacher at a government school in northern Kashmir’s Baramulla district, occupies many social bubbles. When mosques in Kashmir reopened in July, Mir noted that over 90 per cent of the visitors wore masks and kept distance from one another during Friday prayers. Over the next few visits, Mir found, much to his disappointment, fewer people wore masks. Just a week ago, he was stunned to find himself the only mask-wearer in a 2,000-strong congregation at the mosque. “They looked at me accusingly as if to ask ‘kahin yeh to nahin (is he the infected one)’?” Mir says. The man who takes pride in being a law-abiding, responsible citizen slowly removed his mask and joined the prayers. “Today when cases are the highest, at over 1,700 every single day in J&K, one who wears a mask is viewed with suspicion and mistrust,” he says, speaking of areas away from Srinagar.

At more close-knit social settings, a masked face stands for ‘you don’t trust your people’,” Mir explains.

The only place he can keep the mask on without inviting stares and comments is his open-air school at Ladu Ladoora. It is part of Mir’s daily job to send photos of children wearing masks to the zonal educational officer. But there are larger problems to tackle.

“Sometimes the kids nod, but I know they don’t understand [instructions]. They hesitate to ask. They have this need to appear that they’ve caught up with syllabus when they are actually far behind,” says Mir, who had conducted chemistry lessons, rather unsuccessfully, over a normal voice call during lockdown. The digital divide during online lessons has crushed the self confidence of government school students, he says.

Zameen aasman ek karna hai (It’s bridging the divide between the earth and the sky),” he says, expressing his anguish over trying to teach in an environment where motivation levels are abysmally low. “There is still fear, mistrust and unease about reopening schools, also a reason for high absenteeism,” he says, pointing out that while the rest of India has spent six months, Kashmir has spent more than a year in lockdown, exacerbating the social damage inflicted by the pandemic.

Mistrust, a natural outcome of a pandemic like this, fuels social awkwardness. In Maharashtra, many villages took charge of ensuring their safety by barricading entry points with stones, trees or bamboos. In April, it was reported that returning migrants from Pune and Mumbai, both Covid-19 hotspots, weren’t allowed back in for the fear of infection.

There are several reported cases of people being locked up in their homes and hostels on suspicions of being infected by the virus. In April, a Muslim man was lynched in North Delhi on the suspicion that he was plotting to infect several others.

In studies of deviant behaviour, or behaviour that violates established social norms, trust-deficit is a root cause for violent reactions. “A cumulative trust deficit in society can lead to a violent reaction against the State. If 2020 is the year of Covid-19, and if scientific studies are to be believed, the next year can be the year of small and big revolutions in many countries,” Devy says.

The work-home fusion

Personal apart, the professional space is no stranger to awkward behaviour. With offices taking their work online and white-collar employees working from home, there is an increased feeling that people have disposable time. Paromita Vohra, film-maker, writer and founder of Agents of Ishq, a multi-media project about sex, love and desire, says, “People are continuously asking you to do things as if it’s easier now, when, in fact, it’s become doubly difficult given we’re all working from home with no help.”

Add to this requests to present, perform, host, talk — all online — for free or substantially lower remuneration. Money has only grown more difficult to negotiate, with misplaced notions that question what an individual’s time and effort is worth if they’re winging it from home anyway.

Given that the online space is where people access each other more and more, there is no distinction between the personal and professional. It’s normal for someone to reach you on your official id and, within minutes, ping you on your various personal social media handles or your WhatsApp number, demanding a reply.

“Good manners exist in order to help us with awkwardness. People are feeling freer to behave badly,” Vohra says.

Slow-cooked love

If there is one area that has moulded social awkwardness into something meaningful, it is the business of dating. When Priya Dali, a 24-year-old art director in Mumbai, went on her first post-pandemic date a few days ago, it was everything she had hoped for. She and her partner had met on Tinder six months ago and had been talking every single day. The lockdown meant a long wait time during which Dali got to know her partner one text at a time, “with no pressure to perform”. “When we met, it was like we knew each other in every way other than physically hanging out. The awkwardness was predictable and we knew it would last briefly,” she says.

“Social distancing is helping everyone experience what we already knew at Tinder — that a connection formed entirely through digital means is just as meaningful as one formed in person,” Taru Kapoor, Tinder’s India general manager, says in an email interview.

Tinder users are chatting more now, claims the app. May 3 saw an unusual peak, with members sending an average 60 per cent more messages than what was recorded in the early lockdown period in March. Other post-pandemic trends include conversations going up by 39 per cent, with a 28 per cent jump in the length of those chats.

OkCupid, another leading dating app, concurs. “The lockdown has proven the true potential in finding love online. Millennial India has rediscovered the magic of courtship and [is] taking time to truly get to know somebody,” says Melissa Hobley, CMO, OkCupid.

Clinicians would still advise that it’s better to be socially awkward than risking infection. “I don’t want colleagues to eat together or friends to party. It can wait. I want them to maintain [physical] distancing, wear masks and use hand sanitisers. I’d rather have you feel awkward when you meet someone who’s not wearing a mask...” says Delhi-based psychologist Samir Parikh.

It’s a bleak choice to make between mental and physical health. And while we’re at it we could all do with some room for each other’s awkwardness.

(*Some names have been changed to protect identities)

Shriya Mohan

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Published on September 25, 2020
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