NewsPandemic Pursuits

Everybody Is Socially Awkward While Wearing a Mask

After being seated outside at a local restaurant, I wanted a cup of salsa—but was I allowed to go in? I did, masked, and a manager came up to me immediately. He didn’t hear my request; I repeated it, and he handed me a cup, saying something I didn’t hear. I thanked him and walked away. But maybe he was telling me I needed to pay extra for that, and maybe I had just been a clueless jerk. I was already back outside and figured it was better to stay there. It’s as if we’re speaking different languages or have no language at all.

We all know that masks and social distance complicate everyday interactions, but on that day it occurred to me that it’s like visiting another country. Even if it’s an English-speaking country, all the interactions are a little different: body language, greetings, how you pay for stuff. Being polite and kind helps pave over most rough patches, but with masks on, others can’t see you smile or hear your inflection of gratitude or apology.

My husband and I are having a similar experience with new neighbors. While others turned their homes into retreat spaces, our spring was spent packing and moving. We downsized from our home of 29 years to move to an apartment. It’s in a new complex, so everyone living here just moved in, which under normal circumstances would make it easy to meet people. But COVID-19 pre-empted the usual exchange of handshakes and names. A few introductions have been made across a sidewalk or from a patio. The people out the most are the ones with dogs.

We didn’t stand out as elders in our old neighborhood, but here we are clearly above the average age. We take walks through the neighborhood, and others cede the sidewalk to us before I even realize that we should take a turn. Many wear masks walking outside, and though I’ve seen lots of students wearing masks, I’ve yet to see them on the students in the rental house across the street.

So far, the most effective breakthroughs in COVID awkwardness are the unplanned incidents of modern living. I haven’t ever lived in an apartment complex, so I don’t know if it’s normal to get a wrong package set on your doorstep.

The first time it happened, I opened the package without checking the name. There weren’t many residents living here yet, and I was expecting a delivery. I opened the box to find items I didn’t order—classic apartment-rookie mistake. It was meant for my neighbor, whom I had never seen. It didn’t feel right to leave an opened box on her doorstep, so I donned my mask and knocked. She answered and forgave me. I introduced myself but stood back, and then, because she seemed so young, I told her to let us know if she needed anything. That was over two months ago, and I haven’t seen her since. Somehow, she’s doing fine without our help.

That specific display of awkwardness could be blamed on my ignorance of apartment culture or being a mom of a certain age, but I’m blaming Covid. Soon after that, I came home to a small gathering in the parking lot. I hoped it was a party, but then I saw the police car, and an officer leaning into an SUV.

I approached the edge of the group and was told that several cars were broken into. I joined the worried conversation about how and when, which morphed into frustration about apartment management and a desire for a listserv or newsletter. We agreed we wanted communication with each other and from the company. A few introductions were made, but no contact information was solicited.

No one but the police officer was masked. In that impromptu gathering, we almost forgot COVID. We stood apart, but strangers do that… don’t they? It seems like we’re all strangers now. In a mask, even a friend could be unrecognized.

Despite some physical distance in that parking lot, there was shared empathy for the victims of theft, a unity of discontent about mundane things like trash and mail, and an implied resolve to watch out for each other and keep each other safe—a moment of community.

Those moments we once took for granted have been few and far between in these many months of COVID. Finding ways to connect through this awkwardness can be a six-foot reach, but connection and community were once our norm and one day will be again—so keep on practicing.