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MIT Technology Review

Lockdown was supposed to be an introvert’s paradise. It’s not.

Calendars cleared by coronavirus are filling up with virtual happy hours, and some people are starting to feel exhausted.

STEINAR ENGELAND ON UNSPLASH

This was supposed to be the moment for introverts—the disaster preppers of our new, covid-ravaged social lives. Those who cherished their time alone at home were already experts at voluntary self-isolation. Once, backing out of happy hour at a bar to read a book made you a bad friend. Now it’s patriotic. 

In a TikTok from early March with 1.8 million views, an introvert watches the news, singing along with Phil Collins (“I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life”) as the media tells him to stay home and avoid people. Introverts have published expert guides to staying at home and meditations on the joy of “flaking” on social plans. In the Atlantic, Andrew Ferguson wrote that covid isolation has “relieved considerable pressure on the introvert community,” the longtime “hopeful practitioners of antisocial distancing.”

But as people began to adjust to isolation, they started to find ways to bring their outside social lives into their homes. Living rooms that were once a sanctuary from people-filled offices, gyms, bars, and coffee shops became all those things at once. Calendars that had been cleared by social distancing suddenly refilled as friends, family, and acquaintances made plans to sip “quarantinis” at Zoom happy hours, hold Netflix viewing parties, or just catch up over Google hangouts. 

People are coping with the coronavirus pandemic by upending their lives and attempting to virtually re-create what they lost. The new version, however, only vaguely resembles what we left behind. Everything is flattened and pressed to fit into the confines of chats and video-conference apps like Zoom, which was never designed to host our work and social lives all at once. The result, for introverts, extroverts, and everyone in between, is the bizarre feeling of being socially overwhelmed despite the fact that we’re staying as far away from each other as we can. 

“I was into it at first—it was kind of fun,” says Tarek, a law student in New York. “It was nice knowing people were going through this together.” 

But three long days of classes on Zoom, virtual extracurricular meetings, and nightly check-ins with friends and family left him drained.  Soon, he stopped picking up when his friends rang. He just needed some time alone. 

Turning down invitations to talk to people during a global pandemic can simultaneously be needed self-care and something that makes you feel like a bad friend.  After all, how do you tell your group chat of college friends that you just need a night alone at home when you’re alone at home all the time? 

“There’s no way you can pass that off as having other plans,” says Jaya Saxena, a staff writer at Eater, who is currently socially distancing with her spouse in her apartment in Queens, New York. “The only excuse is ‘I don’t want to,’ and no one wants to hear that right now.” 

Extroverts and introverts are the subjects of many personality-driven online memes, like astrology signs or Hogwarts houses. It can give a bit of an exaggerated impression. The reality is that introverts don’t want to be alone all the time, and extroverts can appreciate moments of quiet. But the division exists as a way to describe how people gather their energy: introverts charge up by having quiet time to process, and extroverts do it by socializing. 

Everybody is processing a lot of anxiety right now about the spread of coronavirus, says Pamela Rutledge, a social scientist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center. But their lives at home—and the ways they process that anxiety—are vastly different. For some, staying home means solitude and a lot of extra time. Others are trying to finish school, homeschool children, or work under difficult conditions. As one group looks for things to do, the other longs for a free moment to leave the home and hunt for toilet paper. 

Introverts socially distancing with others might feel an additional layer of stress, even before the first virtual happy hour invitation, Rutledge notes. “Staying at home with others places a burden on introverts because they are not wired for full-time interaction,” she wrote in an email.

Saxena doesn’t think of herself as particularly introverted. She had a tendency to overschedule herself when there were open restaurants to go to after work. But after sitting down one day to schedule another Zoom happy hour, and seeing that she’d filled the next four nights of her calendar with virtual social gatherings, she realized she wasn’t really getting much out of video chats. She needed a break. 

“I feel like an asshole for feeling this way. I love my friends. I like talking to them,” she says. And worse, she knows that these video hangouts have become a lifeline for others in a crisis: “It feels like every interaction is a matter of everyone’s mental health hinging on this thing. You don’t want to let anyone down.” 

Everything feels like a meeting

Video chat has become the go-to substitute for many people’s discarded social lives, the place where they can see the most of the people they can no longer be with. Zoom, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts are easy to use. But they have a way of making everything feel like a meeting. At a happy hour of 10 people in a bar, you can settle into a side conversation, step away for fresh air, or listen to a conversation while nursing your drink.

Virtual happy hours eliminate that extra space, and do not “necessarily allow for time, reflection, and processing,” Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse, told me in an email. “It doesn’t really allow for those pauses in conversation that you might experience on walks with friends.” 

Stacy, who works for an ed-tech company near Albany, knows how that feels. She used to meet friends a few times a week to play Dungeons & Dragons. (Like Tarek, Stacy asked to be identified by her first name only.) Now, those physical games have moved online, through the same laptop camera that provides a portal to all her work meetings. The game is still fun, but it’s hard to relax. The video sessions have lag times; people speak over each other or not at all.

“We can’t necessarily read body language,” Stacy says. “So there’s people who will start to talk over each other, and then nobody talks. Just that tiny aspect of not being able to understand and watch other people’s body language, that minute lag.” 

“We don’t have a ‘normal’ for Zoom when it’s used just as a conversation,” says Rutledge. “We have a ‘meetings’ mental model which suggests meetings are scheduled, they last for a while, and you look reasonable and have your camera on.” 

Video chats, phone calls, and game nights won’t replace a hug or a shared meal. But there are, at least, ways to make the tools work a little better for those who feel drained. 

Tarek learned that turning off the ability to view himself on camera during Zoom lectures helped him feel less as though every video chat was an interview. Rutledge suggests eliminating the video altogether: “In phone calls, you don’t feel any length constraints—it might be long or short—and you can walk around, do other stuff, and are not being observed,” she said. And set time limits, she says: “It’s okay to hang up.” 

For others, structuring the calls might help. “People may try cooking while Zooming, or playing simple games, to allow for more natural pauses in chatter,” says Grygiel. “Folks may also consider going back to writing longer-form email to each other.” 

But Grygiel cautioned against going back even further to letter writing: not everyone is privileged enough to stay at home all day and wonder how to best stay in touch with their friends online. As some manage Zoom social engagements and Instagram and sourdough starters, other people have to be out there delivering those letters.