I have done almost no socializing during the pandemic, so I’m not sure what kinds of interactions people are having, but this struck me as very odd.
I happened to run into a co-worker in a park while I was talking to another friend. I haven’t seen her in person since March, though we’ve been on plenty of video calls together. She immediately started yelling at me about people’s COVID behaviors, what businesses should and shouldn’t be open, how hard her life is, etc. I feel like this had nothing to do with me, but rather that this co-worker was already upset when she saw me and needed to vent. Still, I was so taken aback by her behavior, and it made me very uncomfortable.
How can I appropriately deal with people after not seeing anyone for so long? What could I say or do differently if something like this happens again?
Pandemic Social Skills
It’s fair to say that, collectively, people are not in great shape. Whatever the particular list of reasons, it’s extensive. I’m sorry that you were on the receiving end of this person’s pandemic rant, but I agree with your assessment that this had nothing to do with you.
When you see someone after a long time, you can say, “Hi, it’s so nice to see you in person,” or, “Glad to see you out enjoying the sunshine,” or something else noncommittal about actually interacting. Especially because you were already engaged in a conversation, there’s no reason that the approaching co-worker should have expected to co-opt your time. No reason, of course, except loneliness, lack of practice interacting with people and possibly even relief at seeing you in person, even if that relief expressed itself in the form of misery.
Though I hope this particular scenario doesn’t repeat itself, you should plan to use the same techniques you would use to get out of any other unwanted conversation. “Well, good to see you,” or, “See you Monday back on Zoom,” or even, “Sorry, we have to go,” while gesturing to the person to whom you were already speaking. And since you were in a park, you indeed could easily keep moving. If you did want to acknowledge the particulars, you could say, “I’m sorry it sounds like things are so challenging right now,” but even so, you’re not obligated to listen.
Regarding this particular co-worker, next time you’re on a video call with her, you could private chat or noncommittally email something like, “Just wanted to check in,” or even, “Nice to see you the other day.” You don’t need to address the content of your conversation, and you don’t need to get yourself sucked into being available for more rants, but it could give you some closure to acknowledge that this happened and that you are a sympathetic person who sees her pain.
After this is all over and things can return to normal, whatever that even means anymore, we are all going to need to relearn a lot of what it means to have social interactions. There are so many ways in which our normal patterns of humanity have been interrupted. Whether that shows up for you as a constant, nagging loneliness, or a fear of being too close to people in the grocery store, or the inability to hold in your rant when you actually see a familiar face off-screen, we will all have a lot of work to do to know how to talk to people. It’ll be a long, strange road, but ultimately, when the time comes, it’ll be worth it.