I’ve never enjoyed small talk with strangers, but lockdown has made me crave it

Last year, in what would turn out to be my last night out for a while, I found myself in a dreaded situation: at a friend’s drinks, speaking to a total stranger. Not long into our conversation, my brain started searching for escape routes. I had a full glass and there was a queue for the loo, 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 preferred pastimes. My Golden Globe-worthy performance as “man with cigarette” suggests I could possibly (definitely) be guilty of writing new people off before getting to know them, particularly if there wasn’t an immediate “spark” between us. As much as I love my friends, maintaining relationships takes time, so why open myself up to someone new if there’s no obvious connection?

Then the pandemic hit. Like many people, I was restricted to a year of limited socialising with a very small circle of friends. I’ve met a handful of new colleagues over Zoom in the last 12 months – but I can’t remember one meaningful in-person connection with someone new.

To my surprise, I’m now craving meeting new people more than ever. I’d love to connect with a friend-of-a-friend at the pub, a new colleague over a slightly-too-warm white wine after work, or a mischievous stranger in a nightclub. I miss having unexpected things in common with people, but also hearing new perspectives on issues outside my own experiences. In a polarised time when we gravitate towards 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 sense of connection with a new person can be thrilling. A 2018 study by Columbia University explored what happened to the brains of young adults when they met new people, and found that two central nodes of the brain’s “reward circuit” lit up when subjects felt positive emotions towards someone new. Even 10 minutes of social interaction with a new person boosts cognitive performance. Other studies have linked new social interaction to better social and emotional wellbeing and improved life satisfaction.

According to psychology and neuroscience researcher Ajdina Halilovic, it’s normal for our brains to miss new interactions in these times. “With the danger of oversimplification, that feeling of ‘missing’ interactions is actually your brain seeking out an experience that once felt good. We have a need to connect,” she explains. “When we are not able to, we usually end up craving it.”

Of course, meeting new people can also be anxiety inducing. Our brains remember negative interactions more strongly and in more detail than positive ones, so when it doesn’t go well, we hold on to it. For many, a year of reduced interaction and fragile mental health can make the prospect of a summer of socialising seem overwhelming. Psychodynamic psychotherapist Lina Kaoud thinks 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,” she says. “Therefore any existing anxiety over letting someone new in could be heightened and intensified.”

Another thing I’m grappling with is the pressure to emerge from lockdown as an upgraded version of myself. While life has been slow and still, I’ve realised how much energy I previously put into presenting what I thought was the best me to the world. Seeing people on social media who have had a “lockdown glow up”, makes me worry that I should have been working on becoming more attractive too. Then I feel pangs of guilt for even thinking about such superficial things in a year of death and loss.

Kaoud says navigating the post-Covid world is bound to be confusing, because our emotions “will be determined by our own individual lockdown experiences”. Then, there will be uncertainty over basic things such as whether to resume formal handshakes at work or hugs with friends. But as the risk of death and illness hopefully dissipates, social anxiety will, she believes, “slowly subside to more ‘normal’ levels”.

The next time I meet someone new, I won’t care if they’ve spent lockdown lifting weights or learning another language. I’ll just be happy to be able to spend time with them safely. At this point, I’d even settle for a redo of that conversation with the person I faked a nicotine addiction to avoid. Looking back at it, there’s a possibility that my chat wasn’t exactly thrilling to them either, but they were at least willing to give me a chance.

I may not have had a “lockdown glow up” in the aesthetic sense, but I have learned about myself. Before the pandemic, I hadn’t realised that new people were a vital part of my social ecosystem. As the end of lockdown approaches and we start thinking about what our “new normal” will be, I’m prepared to find the courage to show strangers a less guarded version of myself. Will I still find some people annoying or boring? Of course. But I hope I can give more new connections a chance in the hope of finding the spark that makes life feel exciting.