Let’s talk about…Casual interactions post-Covid

The value of casual interactions amid post-Covid anxiety

Between living half in Galway, half in Roscommon and (still) not having a driving license, I end up spending a considerable amount of my time on the bus (I probably spend a considerable amount of money on it too but I really don’t fancy doing those maths).

For all that time spent though, I’ve not yet grown to dislike the journey. After all, the trek only takes about an hour and a half, so it’s easily enough time to kill with a podcast, a book, or – as is usually the case, if I’m being honest – endless social media scrolling. I lucked out in that the Bus4U service between Galway and Roscommon leaves me just a few minutes from my accommodation, plus the fares are cheap and the drivers are friendly, so despite the amount of time lost to travelling each week, there really isn’t much to complain about.

I’ve been taking the same Bus4U service since I started college in NUIG in 2019 – even through some of the more restriction-heavy eras of pandemic when there were still a few in-person college commitments to make – and it’s been strange to see the steady growth in numbers over the past few months as things have been opening up more and more. The jam-packed buses leaving the city on a Friday, or coming into a city on a day like last May’s Connacht final, bear a stark contrast to the services that were running with just a handful of people during more restrictive Covid times.

The decline in numbers was something so instant at the time that it was impossible not to notice, but less noticeable has been the gradual increase in numbers over the past few months. Like anything I suppose, when things happen over time, they’re harder to pick up on. That is, after all, the same reason why we were all caught off-guard when restrictions eased and we all suddenly realised that somehow, months of not talking to anyone had made talking to people difficult. Truly a shocker.

After all, in the past two years, most of us saw considerable chunks of time go by without coming into contact with any new people. We were all chained to our homes for months, and even after that, we spend a great deal of time socialising in pods with the same limited group of people. We became comfortable with only interacting with a select few people, frankly because it was our only option. But now, as everything returns, we’re all faced with the task of brushing up on our pandemic-induced social rustiness.

On one of my million bus journeys last week, an older man I’d spoken to at the bus stop decided to take the seat beside me so we could continue our chat on the journey. Whether it was the lingering post-Covid shock of someone sitting right beside me on the bus when there’s other seats available, or the lingering post-Covid dread of having to make conversation with a stranger, it caught me a bit off guard. But as it happens, I ended up spending quite a pleasant journey hearing about the man’s gardening and chatting about what course I was doing in college.

Post-Covid anxieties, in much the same way of every other anxiety, are at their worst in your head. Simple things like having a conversation with a stranger seems so daunting to many more of us now than it did pre-pandemic, but the social stakes haven’t changed, we’ve just gone too long without practice. Now it’s a source of anxiety for many, and it’s obvious the disservice it’s done to us. The disservice it’s done to our collective mental health.

There really is a surprising amount of value to be found in our casual everyday interactions, in having a pleasant conversation on the bus with a stranger, getting talking to someone in the pub, etc. It’s something we all went without during restrictions, and try as we might have, all the Zoom social events in the world were never really going to replace that.

We ought to challenge ourselves to overcome our post-Covid anxieties and regain the value that’s found in simple things like being able to ask about the shopkeeper’s day instead of trying to get in and out of the shop as quickly as possible to lower the risk of exposure. Meeting and conversing with new people had (and for many, still has) an anxiety around it post-Covid that didn’t exist before. But sometimes, the very things our post-Covid anxiety is making us dread are things that we didn’t even realise we’ve been missing.

All that said, I don’t know if I hope to spend every one of my bus journeys in conversation with a stranger from now on – sometimes an hour and a half of endless social media scrolling is just what is needed.