High school was a struggle for me because greeting people and trying to make friends was often met with a glare and giggling that gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach. Talking about the wrong shows or following unpopular trends could result in being excluded and ignored for good, labeling you as “weird.” There was always pressure to know the latest gossip or sports news to keep up with what people were discussing. It puts some people at a disadvantage since friend groups will often view it as “awkward” to introduce a new person (usually me) into a group where friends have often known each other for years. This led to constantly repeating a cycle of meeting different people, interacting with them for the little time I had with them, then leaving and not seeing them again for long periods of time. I didn’t have the time to build strong bonds with these people where there were random inside jokes, taking tons of photos, and remembering birthdays without needing social media to remind me.
This year has allowed me to reflect on myself and the way I interact with others. I constantly traveled and kept my schedule full and busy in previous years, so it was strange to have an open schedule for the first time in a long while. Since I usually did not leave much time to socialize previously, I did not mind meeting new people. Even though the excitement of meeting and networking with new people is something to look forward to, I’ve met this idea with mixed feelings in recent years. As people become restless and we get closer to some sort of normalcy, meeting and interacting with new people face-to-face will be a skill that is necessary for a post-pandemic lifestyle.
This semester has been a hard time for all of us, but it is easier to say that “it’s a challenging time” than to accept the circumstances in which we have to interact. Coming back to campus should’ve been a silver lining, but for me, it was much harder than leaving at the start of all this. In fact, it hasn’t been the same since the campus shut down and it’s very clear this semester. The friend who used to be your hiking partner may have locked themselves into their apartment and left your hiking invites on read. The guy who lived across the hall in the dorms never came back to campus, so you haven’t heard from him since May. You and your old friends may have previously gone to WVU’s Up All Night to get free food at midnight, but now it’s risky to do so in large groups. You may have tried to visit a friend on campus, but they aren’t the same. People are tired. Defeated. It’s difficult when “Country Roads” by John Denver is hardly heard now on campus, and it’s frustrating to be in this position where you see the excitement disappear from your friends’ eyes as you try to do something fun— and safe, of course.
I will be completely candid about my reflection; I am not good at interacting with others, and to say that I’m scared to leave my internet bubble of text conversations and faceless video calls is a huge understatement. Newer people tend to tell me that I am an extroverted, fun person to talk to when I approach them with a new topic or I start talking about current events. In reality, this is not the case: when a new person leaves, I have to hide my hands in my pockets because they are shaking so much. It makes me panic. I never know if that person will ever want to talk to me again. Did I talk too much? Too little?
As people have learned this year, in-person interactions are different from interactions behind a screen. In-person interactions are more than text messages becoming actual words spoken aloud— there’s body language, inflections and social cues to be read. Jokes and sarcasm transfer much better in person than through text! It’s also exciting to be in the presence of good company.
On the contrary, online interactions are not as bad as they seem. It does take getting used to, but I feel more confident talking online. There isn’t as much pressure to meet people and I don’t have to worry about people noticing minor body imperfections or my shaking hands. And if I want to just type out my messages, it allows me time to think and make my messages more meaningful and understandable. Ironically, I feel that I’ve improved some social skills as well. Online interactions are also extremely convenient because it takes less work to send a text message or join a zoom call than planning an entire in-person get together where people’s schedules often conflict. Unfortunately, Zoom fatigue is very real, and there will be a push for in-person interactions once it’s safe. At that point, would I be ready to adjust?
As returning to normal in-person activities becomes closer in our near future, adapting back to having in-person conversations will be something that will be a challenge. So, am I ready to go back to in-person classes and visit my favorite spots on campus? Yes, absolutely. For now, I’m going to enjoy talking to others online. Maybe the right in-person interaction will click, and I’ll enjoy stargazing and building a bonfire outdoors with friends one day. But until that happens, in-person interactions honestly scare me. Hopefully one day, I’ll be confident enough that I won’t have to hide my hands in my pockets.