A Quarantine Expert's Guide to Maximizing Post-Pandemic Social Awkwardness


Illustration for article titled A Quarantine Experts Guide to Maximizing Post-Pandemic Social Awkwardness
Illustration: Wellcome Collection

As we come within a stone’s throw of one year since all non-dickheaded people began covering their blowholes and sequestering themselves for the greater good, many have started to wonder what the post-vaccine world will look like when our pale bodies trundle back into the sun, or probably more likely the darkened barrooms we once enjoyed in a pleasanter yore.

Specifically, the New York Times wonders if what was once casual, nothing conversation might not be just weird as fuck after all this time not socializing:

“Welcome to the pandemic province of the socially rusty and newly awkward, where simple interactions among even the most outgoing people have become unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Jumping back into pleasant interactions can feel like returning from a year in the wilderness, a silent meditation retreat or outer space.”

But while the Times talks about conversational strangeness as if it is a bad thing—Isaac Mizrahi’s mother, for example, is boring him with talk of houseplants—allow me, a three-time stay-at-home champion, to offer an alternative perspective: Saying weird shit to people is fucking awesome. Just last night, I was walking my dog through West Hollywood when we were stopped by two little white bichons who wanted a sniff. “I spilled a cup of cheese dip on her earlier,” I said to the dogs’ human escort. “She smells fascinating.”

Now, some people might opine that is a weird thing to say to a stranger, to which I would answer, “Correct.” When I speak to people, I simply say the first thing that comes into my mind. Understanding the boring shit other people seem content to talk about has never been a particularly strong skill set of mine. When people ask my mother what I was like as a child, she tells the story of the time five-year-old me asked the veterinarian when he first realized that he wouldn’t mind if his job one day required him to stick his fingers in dogs’ butts.

I did not mean to insult the vet; I genuinely wanted to know. But my social skills really declined after the first year I spent shut away indoors following a car accident at 18 that left me comatose and then required a lot of surgery to give me a face approximating normal. Once I was recovered enough to go outside and speak with people again, curious eyes on my still-healing face were painful, so much so that I completely forgot whatever social skills I ever possessed. When kind-intentioned but nosy strangers who worked with my stepmother awkwardly said that my doctor should feel proud of the good job he’d done on my face, I spent a few minutes telling them that he was so proud, we were going on a multi-city tour with posters and pitch cards like an old-timey sideshow. Similarly, after my second-most-recent summer of seclusion, while my white blood cell counts left me too immunocompromised to mingle among people, I told acquaintances who casually asked about my cancer stories of trying to keep my dog (the same one who recently had a cheese bath) away from the goo pooling in the drainage bags that had been attached to my body.

My point is this: liberating oneself from fear of sounding weird is beneficial for two reasons. The first is that it frees up a lot of time spent worrying whether the words that have escaped one’s body are strange because the answer is yes, they absolutely were. The second is that saying something bizarre is the fastest way to gauge whether or not the person with whom one is conversing is interesting to talk to or not. The man with the bichons I met yesterday responded to the cheese dip comment with a taxonomy of all the foodstuffs his family had recently dropped on each dog. All in all, it was a wholly pleasant, single-serving conversation, and I walked away from it happy with the momentary satisfaction of having exchanged amusing information with another human being. Meanwhile, over at the Times, I guess previously normal people are worried about appearing rude for not introducing a friend quickly enough:

“I faced something similar the other day when I bumped into Hamish Bowles, the Vogue editor-at-large, in Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Our exchange was pleasant enough until I realized after parting that I had not introduced him to the friend standing next to me, a breach I would not normally commit.”

While most of us would not have any occasion to speak to Vogue editor Hamish Bowles should we see him in Washington Square Park and thus are safe from whatever embarrassment the people who recently did so suffered, Bowles is also the person who bragged about dressing as a pirate to meet Anna Wintour and whom I remain convinced might actually just be Crispin Glover fucking with us. So test those boundaries—even the boundaries between oneself and Hamish Bowles—because, ultimately, there was no harm done! There never really is! The author’s friend, usually “prickly” at not being introduced to strangers, was too out of social practice to notice. Next time, take it one step further—“Hamish, this is my friend Bob. He gets prickly when not introduced to strangers quickly enough and also has a fascinating collection of Victorian jewelry containing locks of dead people’s hair.” From there, the conversation is either interesting or it’s over. Either way, everyone has saved themselves a bit of boredom.

While the writer of the Times piece concludes with a cautionary tale of reduced social skills leading to a screaming match at a dinner party, I would counter that these disagreements come not from being away from people too long but trying to go back to the old polite ways and finding ourselves bristly where we once would have simply let it go. The mistake here was not losing one’s temper with a stranger, it was talking about current events and not taxidermy. Steer the conversation in new, heretofore unheard of directions. My talking points from last year’s guide to sounding dumber at cocktail parties should help, but if those suggestions feel stale at the close of 2020, here are a few fresh for 2021:

  • Think about which cult your Meyers-Briggs personality type might make you well suited for and encourage others to do the same.
  • Pick an animal to hate and then have oddly vehement opinions on the matter. I have chosen birds, but truly, any of them is fine. They can’t understand the mean things you say behind their haunches.
  • Posit your theory that birds, dinosaurs, and lizards are all the same thing. (Warning, it might sound far-fetched not coming from a doctor.)
  • Tell a gross medical story, or conversely, if you are talking to a medical professional, ask them to tell you a gross medical story. That is how I heard the tale of the faulty blood bags from a lab tech at what was otherwise a very boring academic party.
  • If you are writing an article about brother fucking in Gothic novels, by all means, tell your bartender when they ask what you’re working on. That might lead to a couple of free drinks while you explain further to the entire bar staff as it did me.

One caveat, rudeness is not to be confused with weirdness. Don’t get testy with people who want to stick to the old “suitable for public” conversational morés, just leave them to their own and find someone who wants to talk about the fact that fecal transplants have been common medical practice since the fourth century. (Me. That person still is and always will be me.)