How do you feel about 17 May, when the next major set of lockdown restrictions are due to be lifted in England? Are you looking forward to going out to dinner with friends inside an actual restaurant, or are you breathless with anticipation at the prospect of hosting your first, legal, dinner party for as long as you care to remember?
Quite how you feel about any of the above will relate closely to how strongly you perceive yourself to be either an extrovert or an introvert. If you’re the former, then 17 May, followed by 21 June (when apparently lockdown will be ‘over’), will have you salivating with joy at the prospect of virtually untrammelled social contact. Bring it on.
But if you’re an introvert then it’s the opposite story. For as the government unwinds lockdown, you and those like you the length and breadth of country are going to have to confront an awkward reality: namely, people. And in some cases, lots of them. I happen to be married to an introvert and so I’ve been giving this some thought.
It took a long time to emerge but my wife recently started admitting during our (albeit fairly infrequent) social Zoom calls that she has secretly loved lockdown. No need to attend or even hold dinner parties; a blanket governmental exhortation to reduce or eliminate all social contact or necessity for it; and then, just as importantly, absolutely no corresponding guilt about not doing anything socially at all. It’s been an agoraphobic’s utopia.
Even as an extrovert, having the life of an introvert imposed on me for a year now hasn’t been all bad. I’ve quite enjoyed the gentler pace; the endless walks. Professional Masterchef, even. But I'm also concerned about how this extended period of isolation has altered us.
Now that the world is going back to how it was, we're going to have to make major adjustments to our habits, one which I can now see in a different light for the introverts among us. Which is why I must upon those of us who aren’t introverts to go gently with those who are.
We can’t expect introverts to go cold turkey, to rush into it. The surgical face mask must be peeled away slowly – and not whipped off viciously like an indecently located plaster in a Carry On film.
I'm not suggesting we stage a 2021 equivalent of Goodbye Lenin! - that rather wonderful end-of-Cold War German comedy in which a son goes to great lengths to prevent his mother from discovering that the Berlin Wall has collapsed in a bid to protect her fragile health.
But there is something to be said for taking our reintroduction to the world slowly. It’s not just the introverts who will might suffer as we emerge, blinking from the dark social bunker of lockdown. We extroverts also need to be cautious about overdoing it: or we may end up feeling the full force of the resulting lockdown hangover.
Because let’s face it, we’re out of practice – physically, emotionally, socially. We may need to work up to it slowly before exposing ourselves fully, so to speak, to a social function like wedding or Christmas party, with seemingly unlimited numbers of people to talk to, and so much faux pas potential. As the American comedian George Burns used to say: ‘It only takes me one drink to get drunk. I can’t remember if it’s the thirteenth or the fourteenth.’
And while you might have secretly suspected that the lockdown offered an indulgence to the weaker foibles of introverts around you, sooner or later even the most ardent introvert will need to reacquaint themselves with actual, physically-proximate homo sapiens. Until then I suggest that all of us – be we introverts, extroverts or somewhere in between – rekindle our social lives with care.
As for how to go about it, the advice from the field of psychology would begin with the necessity of acknowledging that change is coming. That’s step one. Step two is to start to adapt: harder than it seems but rarely impossible. In moments like this the Stoics can offer some solace too, if a little philosophy is your bag. Marcus Aurelius said that ‘change is nature’s delight’, reminding us that nothing can be created without first being altered from it was before. And like it or not that includes you and me.
If none of the above helps stave off the social anxiety, then I suggest you take to your heels: it’s been proven that physical exercise two to three times a week can do wonders for clearing our heads – with the added benefit for introverts that a run in the country might also help you get away from other people.
Finally, when challenges emerge as they will in the coming weeks, we should take solace in the fact that we are, as Aristotle said, social animals – even if it doesn’t always come naturally. Just as lockdown might have been good for extroverts, so its end might just be the tonic for comfortable introverts too. After all, it’s a challenge worth rising to.