Some Ways The Modern World May Enable Social Anxiety And Awkwardness
There are lots of reasons someone might become socially anxious or awkward in the first place. Once they've become that way, I think there are aspects of modern society and technology that make it easier for them to stay nervous and inexperienced around people. I'll go over some of those factors in this article. But I want to clarify a few things first:
- It's hard to write about stuff like this and not seem like an out-of-touch old person who's grousing about the "kids these days, with their phones and their video games". I don't intend it that way.
- I'm not trying to say, "If you have social anxiety and do any of the things below then it's your fault you're in that mess." The things I'll cover are baked into day-to-day life, so they can affect you without you realizing what's happening.
- These are my personal observations and speculation. The points below aren't the result of a formal sociology study I conducted.
- I realize I make some oversimplified generalizations about the past and present. I'm not aiming to do a perfectly accurate analysis, just get some broad ideas across.
- I'm not claiming any of the factors are good or bad on the whole. I'm trying to look at them through a detached lens of "Could this keep someone from getting social experience? Could it help keep them stuck in an anxious rut?"
- I'm not trying to make some big statement about how positive or negative our current society is as a whole. I'm not arguing there was some Golden Age, where no one was socially awkward, that we should all go back to. I realize every culture, in every point in time, has its pros and cons. In this article I cover ways modern society is better than ever for people who are shy or non-mainstream.
What you get out of this article is up to you. Maybe you'll recognize how a facet of society is sustaining your own shyness to a small degree, and decide to make a change. Maybe you'll just think it's all interesting food for thought, and leave it at that.
More solitary, at-home entertainment options
Back in the day there wasn't as much to do at home. It pushed people to leave the house and socialize with their friends and neighbors, to go to a social club to play cards, or join a proverbial bowling league. Now there are endless things to read or watch online, video games are super-immersive and absorbing, big screen TVs with good sound systems make it easy to skip the theater, and so on. If you're socially awkward, and have some homebody tendencies, it's easy to stay in and be entertained, and not feel your life is that terrible.
More solitary, work-at-home jobs
The internet makes it possible to do more and more jobs from home. This opens up a ton of opportunities, but it can deprive people of chances to socialize with co-workers or clients. A young, socially anxious person with the right skills may be able to get a work-from-home job doing web design right after high school, then never see much reason to push themselves out of their avoidant comfort zone.
Fewer social obligations, like having to go to church
Years ago if you lived in a small town and more-or-less had to show your face in church every week, that forced you to be around people and get social experience. In most towns and cities people have fewer community obligations. I'm not advocating we go back to a time where everyone was a slave to religious expectations. Like I said, I'm just looking at things through an 'Amount of social practice' lens.
Fewer reasons to talk to your neighbors
More and more people live in cities where they can live a self-contained existence. They hardly ever run into their neighbors, and don't have to get to know them if they don't want to. In some places, people might even think it was odd and intrusive if you knocked on your neighbor's door and introduced yourself.
Online communities provide many benefits. They help people in small towns meet like-minded friends. They can be a source of support. They can give people with less-mainstream interests or beliefs a sense that they're not alone.
Online communities can also also fulfill someone's social needs juuuussssst enough, to the point where they don't feel the pull to practice or meet people in real life. I don't think it's inherently worse to socialize on the internet, but it doesn't provide the same level of experience. Someone who mostly talks to online friends may feel more nervous and out of their depth in real-life interactions.
Texting, email, and apps mean we speak on the phone less and less
There have always been people who felt nervous about talking on the telephone, or leaving a message. These days you can use texting and email to mostly avoid making calls. You can even use apps to order food without having to speak to another human. On the relatively rare occasions that you do have to make a call, it can feel that much more unique and scary.
Speaking on the phone gives you higher-quality social practice than sending texts, since you can hear the other person's tone of voice and have to converse in real time. Before the internet and texting, if you wanted to catch up with a friend you had to call them. Now many people think it's weird if you phone when a quick text would do. I hardly think writing is worthless as a form of communication. I realize it can also help shy, isolated people hold conversations when they otherwise wouldn't be able to. It's just that speaking on the phone is closer to a face-to-face exchange.
Smartphones as entertainment
Smartphones are endlessly distracting and entertaining. It used to be that if a few people were stuck near each other on a train or in a waiting room they might be bored and strike up a conversation. Now everyone's likely to have their nose in their phone. If you want to avoid an interaction you just have to look busy and absorbed by your screen. Laptops and tablets can do the same thing.
Headphones / earbuds
Portable music players have been around since the 1980's. Smartphones let pretty much everyone listen to music or podcasts while they're out in public. It's great to have something to keep you occupied while you're walking to the store or riding the bus. From that 'social practice' angle, a drawback of headphones is they let you be around people, but put up a barrier to them talking to you. You're that little bit less likely to get into a spontaneous interaction.
Before self-serve checkouts in grocery stores you had to talk to a cashier. Further back, before ATMs, you had to go into the bank and talk to a teller to withdraw or deposit money. Yeah, these were brief, often rote exchanges, but those little bits of social exposure add up. Technology like this is convenient, but it can allow socially anxious individuals to dodge interactions they really should learn to handle.
Online access to media
In the past if you wanted to listen to an album, see a classic movie, or play a new video game, you'd have to go to a store to get a physical copy. You might end up chatting to the clerk, and maybe even become a regular and get friendly with all the staff. Now you can download everything from home.
Ordering things online
Print catalogs existed before online shopping, but they weren't used for everything. Nowadays you can order even minor, piddly supplies off the internet if you want to. If you're really socially anxious and isolating, you don't even have to minorly challenge yourself by going to the store to buy something small like a bottle of dish detergent.
Smartphones as a source of information
This one doesn't happen as often, but the ability to instantly look things up on your phone can also let people avoid one more type of conversation that may make them a tad nervous. For example, if they're looking for an item in a store, rather than ask a staff member if it's in stock, they may be able to go on the place's website and find out there.
People still try to meet partners by joining classes and teams, going to parties, and heading to pubs. But more and more they're turning to dating apps and sites instead. When you're trying to meet someone in real life you have to socialize in other ways. If you sign up for a dance class, you chat with your classmates. If you go to a bar with a few single friends you spend a good chunk of the night hanging out with them. When you set up an online date you just meet one other person somewhere.
I'm not saying online dating is super-easy for everyone. But if they put some effort into it, many people are able to get some dates, and they don't have to do all that other social stuff in the process. Anxious, isolated women may have an especially easy time finding a partner without having to push themselves socially.
Increased acceptance of different interests, social cultures, and personality types may empower some people not to give up their awkward or avoidant behaviors
Society is more accepting of different hobbies, subcultures, lifestyles, and personality styles. There's much less sense that anyone who doesn't fit into a small mainstream box is a freak. That's a really positive development. No one likes feeling pressured to conform or being told they're broken for having been born a certain way. However, I think one side effect is a handful of people may feel empowered to hold onto some of their genuinely awkward, off-putting behaviors - "I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm just different. I shouldn't have to change. If you can't handle the fact that I'm bad-tempered and condescending, that's your problem!"
A real gray area is when people feel there's nothing wrong with being shy or socially anxious. I don't think being insecure and inhibited around people inherently makes you a flawed or bad person. I don't think we all need to be outgoing chatterboxes. If your life is the way you want it, and you're also a bit shy and comfortable with that fact, all the power to you. But I think in some cases shyness can hold people back from their goals, and they unconsciously use accepting themselves as a way to avoid going after them.
Increased tolerance for flaking on plans at the last second
Why people seem to be flakier these days is its own topic, but I think a lot of it has to do with technology. For one, nowadays you can cancel on someone by text or email, whereas before you had to do it over the phone or in person. It's easier to bail on a friend when you don't have to speak to them directly. Second, people are essentially always reachable through their phones, so you know you can get a hold of them at the last second to say you can't make it. In the past if you said you were meeting a friend at a restaurant at eight, then once you've each headed out, you couldn't contact them, and it would be very rude to stand them up. It forced you to follow through.
Anyway, since it's simpler to flake these days, more people do it, and standards have shifted to make it more expected and tolerated, if not more accepted. If someone is socially anxious and tempted to cancel on an event, it's easier for them to give into that impulse. In the past they may have felt more pressure to show up, where they might have found the get together wasn't as bad as they feared.
Increased awareness and acceptance of social anxiety may enable people to be flaky and avoidant
(I put this one last because I don't fully agree with it myself. But I wanted to include it because it's at least worth thinking about.)
Of course, on the whole it's good that people are becoming more aware and understanding of mental health issues. One thing I've noticed though is that people who have told their friends and family about their anxiety may be a touch too quick to cancel plans if they're feeling uncomfortable that day - "Hey guys, sorry, my anxiety's acting up. I have to bail on tonight."
They know they can back out, be open about why, and have everyone understand their decision. In the past they may have pushed themselves to follow through with their arrangements, because they felt they had no choice. Over many little instances of having to socialize like this, they may have gotten more comfortable with it than they otherwise would have. (I also know feeling forced to socialize can make some people more anxious. I said at the beginning of this article some of these points were half-baked.)
Again, I didn't have some big, preachy agenda when writing this. I'm not saying we should all smash our computers and go back to living like 17th century farmers (I realize if it wasn't for modern technology you wouldn't be reading this site in the first place). Maybe going forward you'll decide to be more conscious of when you're using your phone to avoid conversations. Or maybe not. It's all good. And here's the article that balances out this one's perspective: