How To

How to Share Space Again

A gathering expert offers guidance on returning to a new kind of public life.

AFTER SPENDING NEARLY TWO YEARS indoors wondering when, if ever, the coast would be clear to leave our homes, the post-vaccine reopening of the world has begun. It has been, by almost any measure, both astoundingly weird and deeply complicated. As the global population continues to grapple with what safety actually means in today’s world, most of us are being called to interact with other human beings again outside our own contained ecosystems. This means returning to offices, navigating crowded public spaces, and once again doing things we might have previously taken for granted — going to a dinner party at a friend’s house, overseeing an indoor playdate with other people’s children, being in a venue full of people listening to live music, or watching professional athletes kick around a ball.

For happy homebodies such as myself, this extended period of forced introversion has provided a reprieve from the pressures of social obligation, but for more extroverted friends and loved ones, the solitude of the pandemic has been a unique kind of torture. As the rules for social interaction and public safety continue to evolve, the notion of getting back to “normal life” remains a sort of mirage — a finish line that everyone hopes to eventually cross, but for now exists only as a moving target we’re all cautiously running toward. At a time when so many of us feel like we are still straddling two different worlds, how do we move back into unpredictable spaces with some sense of intention?

I think the philosophical one is like, Who are my people now? Who do I want them to be? Who or what did I long for and miss?

Whether a social butterfly or a proud wallflower, choosing what we want our post-pandemic lives to look like in this miasma of uncertainty is no small task. How do we regain a tenuous grasp on what it means to be a social person again while still honoring our own boundaries for what feels safe? And what do we do when it feels like we’ve lost the capacity to make small talk, or simply negotiate the complexities of whether or not to shake hands, hug, or still keep our distance?

As someone who has spent her entire career trying to understand how people interact with each other, author and behavior expert Priya Parker is uniquely qualified to speak to the social complexities of this particular moment in time. Here, the gathering expert and cultural strategist offers insight into the things we might consider as we prepare to start rubbing shoulders with others again.


For many of us, getting back to normal means, first and foremost, having to go back to work or to an office. What advice do you have for people about trying to figure out how to navigate those spaces again?


I think it's important to have a way to express and be part of collective life. And I think that the office, and all of the norms and tropes and patterns of interaction the office involved before the pandemic hit, was one very specific way of doing it. And we've had all this time now to experiment with many other forms of participating in collective life. For a year now this has looked very different, primarily for those who have the privilege to work from home — virtual collective life and Zoom meetings, not just for work. For most of us, almost every single part of our own identity and the communities that we belong to have practiced gathering in a different way. This means we have things like the Zoom funeral, the Zoom wedding, things like global digital hot tub parties, where people are in their own bathtub and everyone is listening to a DJ. We've had to develop this new muscle. So in a sense, I think it's almost a false narrative to say we've stepped out of collective life and now we're stepping back into it. It’s really just that the form of our collective life has come to look very different over the last 12 to 16 months.

So now we have this opening aperture, or window, to basically step back — it’s a rare, once in a generation opportunity to stop and consider, What do we want this next form of collective life to look like? What is gathering? I think the benefits of being in-person physically lie around the power of informal interaction, the spontaneous interaction — all of the different types of interaction that can happen when people have much more agency in how to navigate a space, more so than they would on a Zoom. The question that I think is really open right now is, How do we design for informal interactions and formal interactions, and who decides?


So maybe the most important aspect of this particular moment is pausing to consider what we want the future of social interaction to actually look like. And the future of work.


It presents what I think of as a collective X-ray moment. Where we all — not just facilitators like me and sociologists and anthropologists — get to truly ask and discern and question things like, “Well, why do we meet in person?” And that, in and of itself, like literally just asking that question individually and collectively for a team, is unprecedented. What should rise to the level of a Zoom meeting? How long should our meetings actually be? Who gets to call a meeting? Should we have any standing meetings at all? Because of this very strange collective experience of the past many months, that question has been decentralized, which is really exciting.


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What are your thoughts about navigating social interactions now — things like weddings, dinner parties, or even just things like shopping?

Think about it as a gathering. Meaning specific moments in time that you're invited to, when you're actually going to meet people for a purpose. The way I think about it is like this: we are all guests and we are all hosts. And most of us are guests more often than we are hosts. So I could be hosting a breakfast meeting for other parents, and then I could also be attending meetings all day long as a guest. And each of those requirements when reemerging, whether you're deciding to host something or deciding to attend something, both of those roles benefit from intention.

So, ask yourself — should I go to this party? Should I go to this wedding? At some level, there's a set of philosophical questions, or a set of practical questions. I think the philosophical one is like, Who are my people now? Who do I want them to be? Who or what did I long for and miss?


So part of feeling good out in the world again has to do with just cutting out the things that aren’t important or meaningful.


Yes. We talk about information diets a lot — what do I want to read? We talk about nutrition diets — what do I want to eat? But I think there's also gathering diets. What do I really want to experience right now? As we reenter collective society, particularly when our social muscles have atrophied, this is important. Actually pause and ask yourself this. Take things easily and slowly. How do I want to engage with the world right now, and with whom? How many events feel right, right now, per week.

I deeply believe that for both hosts and guests, the more intentional we are about why we are bringing people together (and we communicate that), the easier it is to be able to say yes or no. And then when we do walk in, there's less anxiety because you have clearly chosen that you want to be there. There's less of a need to fake it till you make it. Also, we haven't used our bodies to gather in a very long time. And so we need practice. We've all just been bobbing heads on computers, so maybe you meet in a public park before you start going to other people’s homes again. The important thing is about really practicing and being intentional about moving through space.


Do you think that the way that we all choose to interact with each other, or the way groups interact now, will be radically different because of this time in history we’ve all just experienced?


I think that the idea of the individual navigating group life is as old as time. And I think that groups and communities are the creation of a set of individuals who want to come together for a higher purpose. And I think that we have an unusual opportunity right now to really ask questions around what and why and when we should meet, and in what form? I think group life will continue and we will always have the same forces that we see now, both negative and positive. But I think we have a rare window into how so much of our society functions, or has been implicitly or explicitly designed — economically, racially, culturally, and also in our everyday lives. So much has been revealed over the last year or so. We have an opportunity in many of our communities to listen to ourselves and where our energy feels excited and where it does not. We have an opportunity to listen to the many voices that have been pointing out the truth, a truth that we didn't want to necessarily see before it was made unignorable by the pandemic.

In conflict resolution we have a term called re-entry. And I think right now we're in a moment of collective re-entry. Done well, re-entry can be a transformative experience. It’s an opportunity to make meaning out of something that has happened. You reflect back and look at what transpired here. What did we learn? What happened here? What do I want to bring forward? What do I want to leave behind? I think we also just need to be kind and gentle with one another. We're all going to experience what I call micro moments of rejection — whether that's leaning in for an elbow bump and someone leans back out, or maybe it's inviting someone to come over for dinner and they're like, “Ah, I'm not really ready yet.” We must have grace with that. It’s a complicated time for everyone. Just remember that, like you, most people are just trying their best.

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Our Contributors

T. Cole Rachel Writer

T. Cole Rachel is the managing editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.

Niege Borges Illustrator

Niege Borges is a Brazilian illustrator and graphic designer based in Brooklyn, New York. She likes to portray women and gender-fluid people, and explore different movements and shapes.

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