While some of us having been using lockdown to to improve our skill set – banana bread baking counts as a skill, right? – there’s one basic human function we seem to be struggling with right now: holding a conversation.
Pre-pandemic talking to people used to be so simple. From morning discussions with colleagues about last night’s telly, to hushed confessions with your bestie over a bottle of Sauvignon and casual chinwags at the school gates, good chat was easy to come by.
Then came corona and lockdown, and suddenly all those opportunities to converse IRL were either lost or forced to be conducted via a screen.
And now we seem to have totally lost the ability to talk. To anyone.
Even on those rare occasions we do bump into someone when out and about for our daily exercise or for a socially distanced walk, we have absolutely nothing to say. Nada.
Sure we’ll go through the motions: ‘How are you?’ ‘How’s the family?’ ‘Isn’t it boring?’
But these stilted questions certainly aren’t anything like the conversations we used to have, conversations where we traded salacious gossip and hilarious anecdotes from recent nights out and adventures.
Now the only thing we’ve got in our chitchat locker is sourdough starters.
What’s happened to our chat?
Turns out, unsurprisingly, that lockdown is to blame.
“Usually our daily encounters provide interesting conversation topics,” explains Dr Carrie Childs, senior lecturer in psychology at University of Derby.
“At the moment there is little that is happening externally - our social calendars are empty, we have few short-term plans and we no longer come across the usual interesting, irritating or entertaining characters that might usually fill our conversations.”
Dr Childs, whose area of academic specialism is conversation and social interaction, says this lack of typical everyday chat has left us struggling to plug conversational vacuums.
“This is especially the case now that we are in the third national lockdown. Topics of conversation are becoming stale and repetitive and we fall back on our new default, COVID-19.”
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It seems the switch from face-to-face to FaceTime has also contributed to our conversational block, with technology impacting the natural flow of chat.
“The awkwardness during conversations is likely to be exacerbated during video calls where there might be a lag on the video,” explains Dr Childs.
“People are generally very good at monitoring each others’ talk to figure out when it is our turn to speak. Non-verbal communication is especially important for this. As this is out of synch during Zoom calls it is no surprise that we find ourselves speaking over each other or that conversations contain pauses that can feel awkward.
“This is especially the case in group calls and can make the prospect of video calls anxiety inducing,” she adds.
How to get the conversation re-started
While video calls, no doubt, have their benefits, Dr Childs says it can be useful to mix things up and speak with friends and family using audio calls to avoid disruption of non-verbal communication.
She also says we shouldn’t feel guilty about skipping that group Zoom call and instead arrange to speak with people one-on-one.
To combat a general lack of chat Dr Childs suggests it can be useful to prepare yourself with conversation topics.
“Entertainment can be a good conversation starter, for example what you’re watching or reading,” she says. “Many of us are cooking more, so the latest recipes that you have tried can also get the chat started.”
But she says we should be prepared to continue the conversation, rather than asking whether someone has seen Schitts Creek and leaving it at that.
For those of us who are spending more time physically with those we live with or in our social bubble, Dr Childs says it can be useful to have things to do other than relying on conversation.
“Think boardgames, trivia nights, watch a movie together and discuss it,” she suggests.
We might also need to give some thought to how we open our conversations.
“A usual way of doing this is to ask ‘how are you?’,” Dr Childs says. “The socially agreed on response is ‘I’m fine’ or ‘I’m good’. But this is a pleasantry rather than a genuine question seeking out an honest answer.
“In the time of COVID many of us are not fine, and this question is a way to either make a conversation bleak quite quickly, or to force someone to lie.”
At the moment, other questions might work better as a conversational warm up, such as: ‘How has your day been so far?’
“We should be asking genuine questions that invite honest answers and a question such as ‘how are you coping?’ signals this and acknowledges that we don’t expect others do be doing great,” Dr Childs explains.
The good news, according to Dr Childs, is that there is little to no evidence to suggest that the struggle to fill our conversations will last beyond the pandemic.
“This relatively short period does not mean that we have forgotten how to have conversations.”
If all else fails there’s always the weather to chat about.
Let’s face it, a global pandemic isn’t going to stop us Brits talking about the weather.