COVID-19 Is Forcing Men to Confront Loneliness

Aymann Ismail talks to a man struggling without social interaction.

A lone Asian man puts his hand to his jacket.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by yanjf/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail asked men how they’re dealing with social isolation during the COVID-19 outbreak. In this excerpt, he talks to Shuheng, who’s realizing just how lonely he is now that he can’t see his co-workers at the office. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Shuheng: My social life has definitely shrunk down. I’ve been living in this West Coast city for the last six years, and I wouldn’t say I have any close friends here. Normally from Monday to Friday I go to my office to do work, and I find a large part of my happiness and productivity in life comes from being able to be in that environment with other people whose company I enjoy. The sudden change to working from home took that away, and it has a negative effect on my mood. If I don’t get this daily dose of social interaction, even a small watercooler conversation, I don’t want to really do anything. I feel disconnected, and my mind starts to go a little bit crazy. I want to go out and do some stuff, but I know I’m not supposed to do that.

Aymann Ismail: What makes keeping in touch with people so difficult right now? What are your challenges on a day-to-day basis?

Shuheng: I think it’s just a matter of overcoming the initial inertia of having to contact someone. In person, you might run into some people and then you just start that conversation spontaneously, whereas now you might have to call somebody—but then you might not know them well enough to call them. You know them well enough to say hi in a hallway, but not to make a phone call. But, of course, if you don’t say hi and grow that relationship, you’re never going to be closer to that person.

Aymann: I really want to get a sense for what’s so hard about making new friends and how satisfied you are with the number of friends that you have now.

Shuheng: I’m not satisfied at all, and I try to put efforts into expanding that, but it’s still pretty hard. Maybe one factor is, at least in my line of work, software work, people spend most of their time working on their project. You might occasionally talk to your co-workers, but you talk about work. You don’t really talk about personal life so much. I think in the North American culture there’s this expectation of privacy. People try not to ask too many things about how’s it going at home, are you happy with your marriage, all sorts of questions like that. There’s that barrier, and then because of that barrier, people don’t really connect. There’s also office politics because people might be competing against each other. I think all three of these things contribute to this barrier that you and I both feel.

Aymann: Have you tried to get in touch with anyone during this whole lockdown?

Shuheng: Yeah, I contact friends through Facebook because most of my friends are not necessarily local to this area. Even before this lockdown, there were often times when I would feel very lonely, but then I just try to translate that into action. I feel that loneliness is basically our brain telling us that we have to go out and do something, make effort. I think as we get older and get out of school, we have to actually make a plan to do something like join a sports league. I think that’s a big thing. Find the activity which is social, and people do it together to generate that spontaneous interaction.

Aymann: Loneliness is one of those things that I try not to feel. I’ll just try and make myself busy. I’ll go on Instagram and scroll up and down and like things as a way to just have some kind of level of social interaction even if it’s very shallow. It doesn’t ever make me feel like I’m not lonely.

Shuheng: I think that’s a big part of the masculine culture we live in. I think loneliness is probably one of the worst pains. I mean, I’d probably rather get kicked or punched or something.

Aymann: Yeah, that pain—we don’t ever talk about that as men. We never talk about that. And even when we’re by ourselves and we’re feeling it, we don’t sit with those feelings. We just try to do anything else. That’s what I do, at least. I don’t know about you. Let’s try a little experiment right now and just sit with that feeling. What does that do to you? Why would you rather get punched than feel that way?

Shuheng: Because that’s just a horrible, debilitating kind of virtual solitary confinement. You want to scream, but there’s no one to listen to you. So what are you going to do? You’re going to bang your head against the wall. It’s just a horrible, empty feeling.

Aymann: Before I got married, there were some days when it was very hard to do anything. That debilitating sadness, it’s hard to overcome. It’s very hard.

Is there anything that you’ve learned about yourself during this whole crisis?

Shuheng: So far it just reconfirms my prior understanding of myself that I’m a somewhat extroverted person. Social connection is probably the second highest priority in my life, after health. A lot of time people, especially young men, are told that we should do well in our careers, but I’m pretty sure that’s not going to be making my happiness much higher. And health, we don’t really have control. But the social life, I think, is where we can try to put some effort, but a lot of it is also outside of our control.

To hear the entire episode, subscribe to Man Up on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Look for the episode “It’s a Tough Time for Men Without Friends.”