“It’s a jumping off point we didn’t have before,” she said. “I like asking, ‘What hobby did you think you’d take up in quarantine but never did?’”
Establishing commonalities is how we connect, said Dr. Hofmann, so a collective experience like the pandemic can provide us with ample discussion points. Still, he said, remember that it’s not always innocuous.
“If the person you’re talking to has lost a job or a loved one, they may not want to discuss it with a stranger,” he said.
It helps to share your own experience first, said Larry Cohen, a therapist in Washington, D.C., who runs social anxiety workshops. “That way, you’re the one being vulnerable and opening the door, and they can walk through it if they want to.”
And if you walk through it to find yourself in a wildly different room, it’s fine to walk back out. When a recent conversation about masks veered into uncomfortable political territory, Ms. Zion was loath to join in. To extricate yourself gracefully from a topic you’d rather not touch, “say something affirming and sincere — ‘Yes, these are really hard times’ — and then move to a different subject,” said Mr. Cohen.
Interject a little positivity.
While commiserating over a shared adversity can be a bonding experience, Mr. Cohen said, “you don’t want the focus with a new person to be overwhelmingly on the negative.”
When a conversation feels like it’s verging on a complaint-fest — cathartic, sure, but kind of a downer — Ms. Zion steers it toward more optimistic territory. “If someone only wants to talk about how bad their vaccine side effects were,” she said, “I’ll ask, ‘But what are you most excited to do now you’re vaccinated?’”