I met with a friend last February when more relaxed quarantine restrictions allowed travel. As we both settled into our seats, I suddenly had a realization: I was feeling awkward.
Now, I am no master in socializing. I am an introvert and have always felt uncomfortable making small talk, overthinking what to say next and practicing them in my head repeatedly that I miss what the other person is saying and so lose track of the conversation. But this should be different – this is a friend I’ve known for a long time and with whom I’ve continued to stay in contact even during the many stages of quarantine. But I found myself thinking of home, pajamas and bed, which, like for many other people these days, have been my sources of comfort and warmth lately.
I told myself this is normal. This, after all, is the first time I’m going out and meeting someone outside of my immediate family since March 2020. I should forgive myself if my chitchat skills have become rusty. After a full year of talking face-to-face only to myself, family members and pets and catchups with friends and coworkers limited to online chats, I shouldn’t be worried that my socializing skills slightly needed practice, right?
When I got home and replayed the conversation we had, I enumerated all the things I could have said, regretted all the things I did say, and almost thought I completely ruined the night by worrying too much and radiating a bad energy. I, of course, enjoyed the night, but I also realized how tired I was even when we mostly sat down and talked. Or could this be just another pandemic-induced vibe?
It’s a familiar story: A friend sends you a message asking you how you are since you’ve been quiet on social media and/or group chats. You stare at the screen, ponder on the question, formulate a response but alas! forget to reply. The next time you open the conversation and realize what you did — or didn’t do — it’s been a few days too late.
At the onset of the pandemic, I looked forward to catching up with friends and diligently replied to every “How are you?” my friends, colleagues and coworkers would send me. Little by little, however, the glass jar where I keep my emotional energy started running low and I haven’t found a way to refill it fast. The continuous surge in COVID-19 cases and reimposition of tighter quarantine restrictions and curfew hours (and liquor ban) re-ignited that feeling of fear and worry and a declining excitement to go outside even if it’s not completely prohibited. Eventually, I stopped going to the store for grocery and having brief walks at night with the dog. Like a computer not able to function properly with too many tabs open, constant thoughts of the pandemic, safety and being holed up at home for longer started to take their toll. I sometimes felt emotionally drained and exhausted for the day, and this even when I didn’t do any sort of socializing, that replying to messages required extra effort. I know I should be excited and willing to entertain and welcome all forms of catching up. But as we experience this tragic time, it just doesn’t make sense to abide by the perfunctory “How are you?” which I know I will dutifully but mindlessly answer with an I’m fine!
I want to say “I would really love to chat, but I’m too busy wallowing in hopelessness right now,” or “Hi! I’m currently unavailable as I’m having my prescheduled, weekly existential crisis. Thank you!” But obviously, I can’t do that.
Sometimes, I reply or react to a message with an emoji. Other times, I leave the person on read and don’t reply. Friends from work with whom I have shared many casual, fun and meaningful conversations during office lunch and downtime are beginning to notice my lack of participation in the group chat.
All these don’t mean, however, that I have stopped caring. It’s just that for some inexplicable reason, I cannot bring myself to type words or engage in casual conversations like before. I cannot find the strength nor energy to type messages ridden with emojis to conceal my emotions, wait for the reply, think of a neutral thing to say to discourage further talk, and then do it all over again. I desperately want to, but I can’t.
Of course, I can’t say I’m not guilty of playing the game of asking how someone is while not being genuinely interested in their well-being. I’ve asked the famous “How are you?” many times, sometimes as an introduction to asking something completely unrelated such as a photo or video I need them to like or share.
Among friends or acquaintances who haven’t talked in a while, “How are you?” often starts a good conversation and is a genuine interest in asking the other person how they have been. But sometimes, it can either be an empty ice breaker or like the “Tell me about yourself” every job applicant dreads hearing in an interview.
How do you answer a seemingly simple question like “How are you?” knowing it breeds even more questions? Often, we say “I’m fine” even when things are not. You want to be honest as much as possible, but you also don’t want to say too much that you digress or cause the other person to worry about your mental health. It’s like doublethink in Orwell’s world – tell me how you are, but don’t tell me how you really are.
Shouldn’t we be past that? Shouldn’t we be more open and understanding of each other, especially after sharing a historic experience together?
Wouldn’t it feel more comforting to know that the person asking is sincerely concerned about you? And if we feel the question is sincere, can we be both vulnerable and brave enough to answer truthfully? If we’re the one asking, should we just skip the question and ask something else if we’re not really interested to know how the other person has been?
Later on, I learned that mine is not an isolated case: I am not the only one finding it hard to ask and answer an honest “How are you?” In fact, and there might even be a name for it.
The closest word I can find is languishing from the New York Times article last April. Languishing is not feeling burned out nor depressed, but it’s not feeling great either; it’s being in the middle – more like feeling ‘meh’ or *shoulder shrug. * Languishing also affects your focus and motivation, and thus could affect your work and social performance.
Of course, naming the problem doesn’t automatically solve it or excuse one from it. But it does give one a little bit of ease knowing that you’re not alone. When I learned of that word, I felt seen, somehow. It felt liberating to know I’m not being calloused or uncaring and that I don’t need to be too hard on myself simply because I can’t engage in casual conversations for now.
People who are languishing may not easily notice being quieter than normal or having less drive to do the activities they usually enjoy. So, acknowledging that no one is completely fine these days, being understanding of oneself and everyone’s varying situations seem like a good start toward having a better state of mind. Keeping busy, interested and on the lookout for new hobbies help lessen the time spent worrying or languishing. Maybe in a few months or so, the situation will improve and we will have different things to talk about with our friends and colleagues. Maybe a “How are you?” won’t be as complicated and we’d be more comfortable answering. And maybe when things are a lot better, we will have a better answer.