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Experts Offer Help For Those Who've Forgotten How To Hang Out

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This Memorial Day marks the first time a lot of us will engage in the long-forgotten practice of hanging out. Tori Bedford from member station WGBH has more on how we are all having to learn how to socialize again as the U.S. emerges from the pandemic.

TORI BEDFORD, BYLINE: After over a year of Zoom classes alone in her room, Bridget Donovan returned to school for the last few months of her senior year...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BEDFORD: ...Suddenly confronted by the bell, the crowded hallways and - perhaps most terrifying of all - in-person classes with students and teachers who had previously only existed on a screen, many of them just names on a black square with no face.

BRIDGET DONOVAN: I was sitting next to this girl, and I'm like, I don't know who you are. I don't know. That's really weird if I asked them their name.

BEDFORD: Last year Framingham High, a school about 20 miles outside of Boston, went fully remote. As Donovan, like many of us, adjusted to a new way of life, she found herself forgetting how things were before. Donovan is not alone in struggling to rebuild a social life, says Mario Small, a professor of sociology at Harvard University.

MARIO SMALL: The number of people across all walks of life who report just forgetting how to interact with people in person is quite high.

BEDFORD: Small says we're all kind of processing a cognitive overload not just from having to think about putting on real pants but from all of our new social etiquette that we haven't quite established yet.

SMALL: Do you hug people? Do you shake hands? Do you shake hands but then wipe it with some hand sanitizer? There is no protocol.

BEDFORD: It's also just been a year of really tough conversations, which student Bridget Donovan says she's sick of having.

DONOVAN: When someone's like, how are you, I'm like, you want the long answer or short answer? I can say I'm good and then we end this conversation, or I'll tell you the truth. And that, you know, is going to go into a big, long thing of, I'm tired; I'm stressed.

BEDFORD: Journalist and public speaker Celeste Headlee says it's not so much the socializing that's exhausting us. We're already exhausted by everything. In her book "We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter," she suggests that social media kind of tricks us into thinking we're connected, but it actually just makes us more tired.

CELESTE HEADLEE: You have to think of your social energy like your gas tank. And if you're spending a bunch of time on Facebook and Twitter, what's happening is you're expending all of that gas, but you're getting nothing in return.

BEDFORD: Headlee says it's going to take some work to make new connections, but putting ourselves out there is the first step in rebuilding our social lives.

HEADLEE: There's a researcher named Nicholas Epley. He says, you know, nobody waves, but almost everybody waves back. Be the one that waves because people will wave back at you.

BEDFORD: This fall Donovan will begin her first year at college in person at a school where she doesn't know anyone.

DONOVAN: Even though it is going to be hard, I am willing to take that, like, risk and stuff of putting myself out there and meeting new people.

BEDFORD: Donovan says she knows she can't jump in tomorrow at 100%, but little by little, she'll work to be the one that waits.

For NPR News, I'm Tori Bedford.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODY'S ECHO CHAMBER SONG, "SOME TIME ALONE, ALONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.