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Is pandemic isolation destroying our social skills?

With everyone touchy about everything, we can’t even make small talk anymore.

David Carrasquillo, owner of Boston Blendz Barber Shop, cut Evan Ward's hair.  Carrasquillo says his normally chatty barbershop hasn't been the same since the pandemic began.
David Carrasquillo, owner of Boston Blendz Barber Shop, cut Evan Ward's hair. Carrasquillo says his normally chatty barbershop hasn't been the same since the pandemic began.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Can we talk about talking? Specifically how bad we’re all getting at it. Seven months in, the pandemic has claimed our wardrobes and our waistlines, and now it’s coming for our personalities, too.

“I’m losing social skills,” said Connor Gregory “It’s like a muscle that’s atrophying.”

“If you go more than half a year without meeting new people, that’s definitely not good for you,” added Gregory, 29, a senior account executive in New York who has spent part of the pandemic living with his parents in Winchester.

As the pandemic wears on, wiping out every known activity — and things we didn’t even consider activities, like getting our teeth cleaned — we’re starting to look back with nostalgia at small talk.

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As Erica Melamed, the mother of two young children and a waitress, put it: “These days, no matter what you bring up, it’s a dead end.”

“You can’t ask how someone’s summer was,” said Melamed, of Hopkinton, “or if they have fun weekend plans, or how work’s going, or if the kids are glad to be back at school.”

Things are so bad that even Halloween, once a reliably safe topic, has become triggering. “Parents are upset about it,” she said.

Who are these people who used to be able to . . . what’s the word? . . . chat?

One of them was Kristin Cronin, an extroverted marketing executive. She has gone to her office, in Newburyport, a few times since July, and although she likes seeing colleagues, once‐natural social activities — like meetings or picking up takeout with coworkers (now socially distanced) — leave her physically fatigued.

“I am exhausted from being my old self,” she said.

With the looming winter poised to further reduce interactions, by the time the pandemic is over we’re going to be one socially awkward town.

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The only people we feel comfortable talking to now, apparently, are therapists.

“The challenge of socializing is the number one discussion we’re having with our clients,” said psychologist Elaine Espada executive director of the Beacon Therapy Group.

Normal social cues like smiling are gone, she said, leaving many people worried they’re sending a strange “I’m staring at you” message when they encounter friends or acquaintances while running errands or at a masked event.

“Nonverbal communication is being lost,” she said.

Clients are stressed about violating new and shifting rules of etiquette, which include, but are not limited to: Am I standing far enough away? Am I making this person uncomfortable? Is it OK to take my mask off?

“Pandemic social rules are different for each person and group,” she said. “All this uncertainty is increasing our clients’ anxiety.”

Masks not only hide smiles, they make it harder to understand the person who is speaking, and can feel so constraining that some people just give up on talking and hustle away.

Further, the trend toward cashless, order‐ahead, no‐contact shopping is training us to be antisocial — to dash into a shop, grab our goods without so much as a rote “Have a good one,” and flee.

“Interactions have become so transactional,” said Maureen O’Brien, a psychologist with Families First, a nonprofit parenting program.

“Everyone is feeling a lot more anonymous,” she said, “and that is not good for society.”

People are also: feeling strange around anyone they don’t live with (even as they’re sick of them); becoming more self-conscious of their appearance thanks to the dreaded Zoom self-view feature; and unable to think of conversation topics beyond the pandemic and Trump.

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Perhaps nowhere is the pall more visible than at barber shops and hair salons, traditionally happy, chatty spaces.

“It hasn’t been the same, I’ll tell you that much,” said David Carrasquillo, the owner of Boston Blendz Barbershop, in Roxbury.

Boston barber David Carrasquillo focused on a client.
Boston barber David Carrasquillo focused on a client.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“You hold yourself back from laughing too much,” he said, explaining that if he were the client, he wouldn’t want someone standing over him, breathing and keeping up a steady stream of conversation, spewing droplets and aerosols.

As the pandemic drags on, with no end in sight, even cheerful people are getting grouchy.

“I find myself saying, ‘I hate people’ — but I don’t hate people,” said Denise Selden, the owner of Salon 345 & Day Spa in Saugus. “I love people.”

She tried to describe the vibe in her salon. “It’s difficult to put it into words: the overall state of people,” she said.

“They are so uptight and stressed and bored, and the whole lack of socializing. Who have they spent all this time with? No one outside their family.”

The most reliable subject of conversation, she said sadly, is alcohol. “If I had a dollar for everyone who told me they drink a bottle of wine every day, I could retire.”


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Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.