There is a psychological theory that the human brain can suppress painful memories so that we aren’t put off doing things again — like childbirth, say. I am beginning to wonder if this is what happened to me; if in lockdown my brain willfully forgot the agony of socialising in large groups of people. Happy “Freedom Day” — in other words, the end of the Rule of Six, and the return of large-scale get togethers; of birthday parties where you are stuck next to someone’s (tedious) plus one and of passive aggressive bill calculation acrobatics that take 40 minutes as it emerges that one person only had a salad, actually, while another clearly had a three-course feast fit for Henry VIII. Remember that Sartre expression, hell is other people? If not, you’re about to.
Perhaps my expectations for re-entry were too high. In lockdown, my social life mainly consisted of having the same conversation about bin collection day on the doorstep with my 74-year-old chain-smoking neighbour — and I was desperate to see my friends. I fantasised about the before times, the spontaneous drinking sessions that evolved into dancing in a kitchen until 3am, the group dinners where it felt like we were the funniest people in the room (when in reality we were just the loudest) and the gossipy debriefs the next morning. Reality could never match up to my idealised memories. It was not all one big red-wine fuelled hullabaloo. In fact, now people force cheap prosecco on you and you can feel the toxic sugar crash/ hangover combination coming before you’ve even taken your first sip.
Now there are no limits on how many people you can see, it is about to get a whole lot worse. In the Rule of Six era, guest lists were limited, which usually meant you only had to see your real friends. Now, it’s a free-for-all again, and you’ll realise you’ve missed some people more than others. This is meant to be the summer of love, so why am I spending it feeling socially bruised, having to tolerate my friend’s girlfriend who thinks Covid is a conspiracy?
Ah, they were nice — those months where you didn’t have to enter into protracted negotiations about where to meet because your friend has chosen to move to Norbury and is reluctant to go anywhere else. She suggests Victoria as a compromise but you know deep down that the area around the station is a vortex where nothing fun has ever happened.
I’m pleased for my friends with their enormous houses in Kent but I am less delighted that this means that I am now expected to go there.
Some people have not changed. Your friend who somehow always gets away with not buying a single round of drinks still has that particular skill. A colleague says that lockdown has made her bolder. She told a parsimonious pal, “you know these aren’t free, are you going to get the next lot?”
But all this is contingent on managing to meet at all. People’s lives have changed in the past two years, which for many means moving to the suburbs or having babies. Gone are last-minute drinks, now planning is a military operation. Pre-drink logistics chat is charged with judgmental undertones. “I’m pleased for my friends in their enormous houses in Kent, really I am,” says a woman on the frontline of the new socialising. “But I am less pleased that this means I am now expected to go there.”
WhatsApp groups exacerbate the problem. They are subject to performative busy-ness — “I can’t make any of the next Saturdays but how about October?” Far better to just send a private message. It is crushing when someone replies that they can’t make your party on a big public group, lowering the mood and making you look unpopular.
Oh and watch out for the jellyfishes — the people who breeze along, saying what you think is a compliment but when you leave you realise that it has left a sting. Lockdown has left space for this, classic comments are, “you’re looking well, so much slimmer than before” or “not managed to get a haircut yet then?” Count yourself lucky that no one has mentioned coronaspeck, the German word for post-lockdown fat.
Other offences include stealing people’s jokes — repeating what someone said but louder. See also, bringing up embarrassing stories in front of new people or revealing gossip that you shouldn’t have told anyone.
Then there is the person who has mistook having a drink for a therapy session. They analyse themselves at length, pausing for breath to say “so, tell me about you” before then bringing it back to themselves because the one thing you manage to say reminds them of something that they once experienced. Really you should admire their stamina. Talking about yourself for so long must get boring. You are certainly bored. You almost prefer your show-off friend who sees you as an audience.
What is the solution? First of all know who your allies are. Real friends aren’t usually like all the types above, except for when they can see that you are stuck with the person no one wants to talk to and they ignore your SOS signals. If this happens, extricate yourself by going to fetch a drink, even if yours is full, pretend it is for later, or by going to the loo. Mute your WhatsApp groups and always order what you want — you will end up splitting the bill whatever happens. Good luck out there — it’s a jungle.
Hang on, are you the annoying friend? Do the quiz to find out
Today’s the day! What’s the plan?
a. It is a Monday, so nothing.
b. Drinks with six people. (No reason to go overboard.)
c. HOUSE PARTYYYYYYYYYYYY! You’ve told the neighbours to get an Airbnb.
Your opening gambit is:
a. Gosh, this is all a bit weird, isn’t it!
c. God, you look SO DIFFERENT!
It’s your round. You:
a. Politely ask everyone what they’d like.
b. Reorder what everyone got last time.
c. Sidle to the bar on the way back from the loos then pour your new drink into your old glass to cover your tracks.
Your diary is:
a. Full-ish: dinner next week, a week away.
b. Out of control. You’ll have to pull several sickies.
c. You’ve just re-mortgaged your flat to cover summer.
You are organising all said plans:
a. WhatsApps to individuals to make them feel valued.
b. A group WhatsApp called “SUMMER OF <3 BITCHEZZZZ”.
c. Via a mailing list you set up. Subscribe now!
Congratulations. Your friends still like you.
You’re excited, but not a monster.
You are the annoying friend.