Strangers When We Meet

By Robert Goldman

January 7, 2021 5 min read

If you thought it was strange to confine yourself to your home for eight long months, refusing to interact with anyone who wasn't on a Zoom screen, get ready for an experience in strangeness the likes of which you haven't seen, well, for eight long months.

I'm talking about working with real people in real life. 3D, baby — 3-doggone-D.

It was a Bob Morris column in The New York Times that alerted me to the problems.

"Feeling Socially Awkward? Even Extroverts Are a Little Rusty" is the title of the piece, which did hit home with me. If social butterflies were having trouble, what hope was there for social snails?

Morris became aware of the rust on his own social skills after going face to face — or, hopefully, mask to mask — with a business associate. After a pleasant conversation, Morris realizing he had "not introduced him to the friend standing next to me, a breach I would not normally commit."

Awkward incidents like this can easily be corrected with friends, but what happens when you're back in the business world? If your boss fails to recognize you for a week or two, it probably means nothing. If your boss fails to recognize you for a month or two, it's time to find another boss.

Or maybe not.

"Even the most social people right now feel like awkward eighth graders attending a school dance for the first time," says Samantha Boardman, a Manhattan psychiatrist.

I'm not a psychiatrist, but I can offer a quick refresher course in how to behave when you step out of the deep freezer and step into the business world you left behind.

Working at work is different than working at home.

The people you are so glad to see on your Zoom screen will be a tad less attractive when they are sitting next to you. Before the pandemic, you were accustomed to their noisy phone calls, annoying chattering, incessant mumbling, coughing, scratching and screaming. When you're separated by a thin cubical wall, these could prove to be distractions.

Ear plugs and a blindfold will help, but they may not be sufficient. That's why you should ask your manager to change "Casual Friday" to "Bring Your Blanky to Work Day."

Put your blanky over your lap or, if the tumult gets too much, over your head. You won't get a lot done working in the dark, but you'll feel warm and cozy, just like when you worked at home.

Just remember to take your blanky off when you move through the office. You don't want to bump into a wall, or a senior vice president.

Dressing for success has changed.

Before you bring out the spiffy work clothes now moldering in the back of your closet, be prepared for a shock. For some reason, these clothes have shrunk. They're difficult to squeeze into. Impossible to button or zip.

Some will say that your work clothes haven't gotten smaller and that you've gotten bigger. This is unlikely. Just because your kitchen table desk was within inches of your refrigerator doesn't mean you were eating constantly all through the pandemic.

But just in case it does, you'll want to bring one or three coolers full of your favorite treats and snacks into the office with you when you return. And keep wearing your at-home outfit of sweatshirts, sweatpants, sweat socks and sweat shoes.

It's a look that you would never, ever wear in public before, but now, you'll find it's quite in style. You may even want to wash your sweats, but don't hurry. It's the smell of home, and everyone at work will appreciate knowing that you're coming from 20 feet away.

Lunch will be a challenge.

In the old days, going to lunch with your co-workers or your managers was no biggie. Launching a lunch now that you're out of your work cave will require some changes on your part. For one thing, you shouldn't eat with your hands.

In your home office, it's no big deal to pick up a breaded port tenderloin and nibble it away. At a work lunch, you are expected to use a knife and fork. Crazy!

You are also discouraged from drinking wine from the bottle and wiping your face with the tablecloth when finishing a meal. And be especially careful with that small, white piece of paper that will appear when you finish your lunch.

It's called a check, and you don't want to touch it.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at [email protected] To find out more about Bob Goldman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: Firmbee at Pixabay

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