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Early in the pandemic, it became almost taboo to ask, “How are you?” There was no point; no one was fine. It was no longer appropriate to address emails with the usual platitudes, because no, emails did not “find me well.”

Even as vaccinations make some social situations physically safer, the usual small-talk questions are no longer “safe” for casual conversation, explained Angela Neal-Barnett, a professor of psychology at Kent State University.

“The things we use as small talk are not going to get small-talk responses,” Neal-Barnett said. “The dual pandemics of systemic racism and covid have made, ‘How are you?’ a loaded question.”

In light of these challenges, we asked our readers to tell us what small talk has felt like for them recently. Many reported ongoing difficulties, especially as the pandemic continues to present new challenges. Variant concerns and breakthrough cases have made social situations feel more treacherous. Many said they are living with trauma, grief and fear that makes it difficult to have lighthearted conversations. Others have reunited with friends and co-workers but aren’t sure what to talk about. For women of color, challenges may be particularly acute, especially as some face how to reenter predominantly White workplaces.

One thing you can take comfort in: These feelings are normal, and everybody is struggling to some extent, Neal-Barnett said. Small talk rarely comes naturally, so most people have to practice to get good at it.

“Listening to yourself, to your body and to others — you will get better,” Neal-Barnett said.

We asked experts for advice on how to do just that. Here’s what they had to say — presented in comic form.

Note: If social anxiety is interfering with your professional or personal life in a major way — especially if you’re having frequent panic attacks — it may be time to seek clinical help, experts said. You can find some free or reduced-cost mental health resources here.

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