Feeling Socially Awkward? Even Extroverts Are a Little Rusty

Indeed, the niceties of the simplest pedestrian civilities can overwhelm the more cautious among us. And when we aren’t putting feet in mouths, we’re putting others on the spot by asking them if they’ve been tested and to open their windows to let air in.

At a dinner last month at a friend’s house on Long Island, when the virus was starting to resurge, I asked a fellow guest who was six feet away, but talking so percussively that I could almost see the aerosols spraying from his mouth, to lean back in his chair. I disliked myself for doing so — it wasn’t my home, so I had no right to make the rules. But to his credit, the guest just laughed and sat back in his chair, giving me the benefit of an extra foot or so. He even pulled up his mask for good measure.

It felt incredibly awkward, but at least our conversation was amusing. That’s not a given anymore.

“We’ve lost the ability to talk about a lot of things, because we aren’t doing a lot of things,” said Fern Mallis, the fashion consultant known for turning New York Fashion Week into a major social event. She found herself a little tongue-tied at an outdoor Alvin Valley ready-to-wear show in Southampton in October, a rare outing and momentary return to the runway. “How much can you talk about Donald Trump and what you watched on Netflix?” Ms. Mallis, 72, said. “And now Trump’s leaving.”

Isaac Mizrahi, the witty fashion designer and cabaret performer, is having a hard time bantering with his mother. “She used to talk about fabulous things, including her shopping trips to Loehmann’s,” Mr. Mizrahi, 59, said. “Now she tells me about how her house plant grew a little.”

Not long ago, he was taping one of his virtual cabaret shows to stream on Broadway World from Café Carlyle and found that his patter had lost its pizazz. “I talked about the egg white omelet I had for lunch as if it were the Arab Spring,” he said. “And I sounded like a 93-year-old myself.”

Jeanne Martinet, the author of “Mingling With the Enemy” and other books on social interaction, partially attributes the lapse in felicitous talk to too much Zoom, where you can’t practice the subtle and playful art of talking over and around one another. It does, after all, take a certain amount of skill to jump into a lively or heated conversation. And when you’re behind a face mask, that makes the nuances of humor and empathy hard to express, which may explain why we use emojis when we send texts.

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