‘Southern Voices’ is a reader-submitted platform for stories from the heart. Today’s submission comes from Liza Graves, CEO of StyleBlueprint. If you have a story to tell, see our guidelines for submission here.

**********

I ran into a friend at the grocery store. But, with her mask on and her husband wearing a hat and a mask, I had no idea who was calling my name and waving. As we started to chat, I quickly figured out who it was, but in that moment, I realized how out of place I often feel this year when running into someone.

It’s beyond the incognito factor of the masks. It just feels weird to run into someone and not touch … at all. No hugs. Possibly an elbow bump. Are you standing too close? Asking “How ARE you?” sounds a bit trite, but what else do you ask?

This doesn’t even count the clumsiness I have when wearing a mask. Just having that tiny loss of peripheral vision, and I’m running into corners, tripping over things and moving my head in all directions to try and see better. And, when the person behind the plexiglass wall says something to me through their mask, I feel like I may be losing my hearing as well. How are people with hearing loss dealing with all of this?! All that to say, I’m happy to wear my mask!

RELATED: Hugs Are What I Miss Most

Add to all of this not being able to judge emotions or read social cues and it’s just dang AWKWARD.

I saw someone I knew when I was walking recently. But, she was across the street, and I was listening to a podcast, and I really didn’t know if she wanted anyone near her, so we just kind of waved and kept going. It’s like we both calculated the risks and efforts of stopping to talk, shrugged internally, and kept going.

Then, of course, there is the actual fear of getting COVID-19. Why am I even worried about my awkwardness in a worldwide pandemic? Add that to the list of things I shouldn’t be thinking about but am.

Add to all of this a divisive political year, and if you don’t want to talk about the pandemic or politics, there’s not much more going on. And, the pandemic became politicized. Everything you say today can be met with so much judgment … all small talk is a potential minefield.

I ran into someone today who asked if I had plans for the holidays, and I wasn’t sure how to answer. Every answer I could say would quite easily lead to judgment and accusation, and I just am not someone who looks for confrontation. After these past few months, I just want peace, quiet and low drama. I mustered the reply, “One thing is for sure, it will be strange.” Small talk … it’s now all just so.much.effort.

You can’t really say to someone, “Hey, let’s have coffee soon” or “We’d love to have you over for dinner,” as that actually may insult somebody or have them think you are reckless. But, I miss people. “We have heaters! We’ll sit outside!” We really do, and we really will. How weird to be in this place and time.

Beyond the potential pitfalls of all interactions, there is the fact that small talk is an art that takes practice. And, small talk leads to deeper conversations; you have to tread water before you go deep. But, what if we’ve all forgotten how to tread water?

To participate in any large group gatherings in 2021, I’ll need some practice to feel like I’ve got my game back. I want my game back. Once we’re all vaccinated, I need small dinner parties, then maybe a gathering of 20ish people. Surely this is like riding a bike, and the skills I fear I’ve forgotten will come flooding back? Talking to some friends, they freely admit to feeling anxious about any potential future social gatherings post-vaccine — and not from germs; it’s from their angst from atrophying social skills. We’ve collectively forgotten how to navigate social settings. I’m sure plenty of people feel this way about something as once-so-normal as simply going into the office.

RELATED: Pandemic Dating: How People Are Finding Love & Learning Lessons Along the Way

Heck, once we’re vaccinated, I may be that person who hugs EVERYONE. I may have to limit myself to one glass of wine when out. That first event I attend? Watch out everyone, here I come. Hugs for all while blathering about how much I love and have missed you. Just go with it, okay? My skills are gone. I really may become too embarrassing after two drinks. I’m serious; at that point, I will have gone a whole year where two drinks or more only meant talking to the TV or to my family and then walking up the stairs to my bedroom. I’m going to be oh-so-rusty.

Surely I’m not the only one to have noticed this. The more we hunker down with just our families, the more out of practice we become at interacting socially. While the family bonding has been great, collectively we’re all just getting a bit awkward. Add another six months, and it’s only going to get worse. As the temperature dips, we’re all wearing more clothes, and those extra layers disguise us even further. Who is that person waving to me? If I keep walking, will they assume they had the wrong person so I don’t have to worry about what to say?

Hey, Netflix, can you add a documentary to your lineup for all of us as we re-emerge later in 2021? “Tips On How to Be Around People and Small Talk for the Post-Pandemic Era.” I think we’ll all need it.

**********

If you are feeling too unsafe to get out and about this holiday season, or too socially awkward (as we’ve now determined is definitely a thing), check out the SB Online Shopping Guide, where you can shop for gifts online AND support local bricks and mortar shops across the South — and they all offer nationwide shipping!