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Remember back in March, 2020, when we thought COVID-19 was only going to last for two weeks? Well hello, 1½ years later. I hardly recognized you. Yes, I look different, too: my eyebrows have grown in, my hair is a foot longer and I now exclusively wear tie-dyed cotton tracksuits. But enough about me, I want to hear about you! What have you been up to? Where did you go? Who did you see? Fill me in on all the gossip, my casual acquaintance.

What’s that? You didn’t go anywhere, do anything or see anyone, so now you think we have nothing to talk about?

What I’ve just illustrated are the social fears many of us are currently experiencing as the country ticks toward normalcy. After all, how does one initiate small talk when one has nothing small to talk about?

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Here’s an idea: Let’s forget about small talk and instead rethink our social interactions with real talk. (Small talk was always the worst part of parties, anyway).

Real talk doesn’t mean deep talk, or doom, or even gloom. It could be as simple as, “So now what?” A cheeky little opener that could potentially lead to an interesting conversation. Or, “Did you make any big changes this past year?” I like this one because it can take you in so many directions. Or how about, “Let’s start where we left off.” And then you do.

Don’t overthink these initial steps back into society. Just be yourself and remember it’s okay to be nervous, but it’s also time to come out of hiding. Besides, everyone is looking forward to seeing you.

And see those people nervously hovering on the periphery of the conversation circle? Invite them in. We’ve all been isolated and many of us have lost our mojo. Let’s make these initial interactions easier on everyone. Be inclusive and even a little more open and generous than usual.

From sweatpants to social hour: The skinny on dress codes

“Right now, I think that a dress code is not something we’re going to adhere to,” says Afiya Francisco, a Toronto-based style expert, adding that it’s an anything goes scenario out there because expectations have changed. “Having said that, I think people will get dressed up because it has been a while and they’ll be feeling the joy. It’ll be more about how excited we are about doing anything that requires dressing up.”

For some that might mean sky-high heels, while others are saying they never want to wear heels or shape wear again. “It is more about comfort within your own skin and how you want to show up,” she says.

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“Cocktail chic used to mean one thing and black tie meant another, but now people will be showing up in all sorts of incarnations for both because after all this time, it feels like anything and everything is an occasion to dress up,” Francisco says.

So you want to start dating again: Here’s how to get back in the game

With so much uncertainty about COVID still, and the fact that most of us haven’t flirted much in the past 18 months, it may seem like dating is a skill that needs to be relearned. But Vancouver-based dating coach Nicole Haley says all that’s really needed is patience – with ourselves and with others. “Dating has changed,” she says. “People are approaching it with more caution and anxiety than usual.” Yet the pandemic has also forced us to be clearer about our needs. “That could mean taking stock of a partnership that isn’t working any more, or realizing what we want out of a new relationship in order to be happy.” Haley says our standards are higher now, and that’s okay. We’ve waited this long and now we’re not going to settle.

She suggests going to a place you know and like: your favourite coffee shop, the park or the zoo. “People have dating app fatigue and want to meet in person,” she says, which gives rise to more authentic interactions. “But above all else it’s time to have fun again. I can’t stress that enough. We go in with all of these big expectations and forget to just enjoy the date.”

What’s the best way to decline social invitations if you’re just not ready?

“The first step is to clarify your ‘why’ for declining,” says Karlyn Percil-Mercieca, a Toronto-based inclusion strategist and neuro-life coach. “And if you haven’t already done so, this is a great opportunity to have a brave conversation around your needs.” She says identifying your boundaries helps set the foundation for declining and in turn avoiding emotional stress around social invitations.

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Percil-Mercieca suggests creating what she calls “social engagement cards.” Think of them as mental cue cards, phone memos or even actual sticky notes, about the boundaries you’ve set for yourself.

The cards can include information such as your vaccination status and the types of social engagements you’re comfortable with, for example outdoors only, patios or walks, and touching guidelines (yes to elbows, no to hugs, for example). “Social engagement cards help create less stress while we relearn each other’s boundaries and honour them,” Percil-Mercieca says. “After all, we’ve never been here before.”

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