Sept. 2, 2021

Returning to campus, our in-person conversations may be awkward. That’s OK

UCalgary leader navigates in-person interaction during the transitional period. Here are strategies and resources to support you
Sarah McGinnis and family
Sarah McGinnis and family Sarah McGinnis

As someone who has experienced social anxiety, Sarah McGinnis, director of communications services for UCalgary, reflects on what she’s learned to help her through a gradual return to campus and more in-person interactions. Recognizing everyone’s experiences and situations are unique, McGinnis has words of encouragement for those in the UCalgary community who may be particularly nervous about the social aspect associated with a return to in-person work.


I was pushing a stroller with my chubby-cheeked twins towards the Peace Bridge in Calgary when disaster struck.

“Sarah, is that you?”

It was a casual acquaintance from work, someone I hadn’t seen in a while and would normally enjoy catching up with. But, as she spoke, I froze. My mind was racing as I scrambled to say something — anything. The words were caught in my throat.

I couldn’t speak. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to notice. She was already crouching over the purple double stroller, cooing at my 15-month-old boys who were reaching up to touch her hair.

My mind was racing. What do I say? What’s going on?

Sudden social anxiety

A decade has past but I still remember experiencing waves of social anxiety in that moment and many others. As we collectively emerge from prolonged isolation caused by the pandemic, I expect those feelings to return very soon to many of us.

Over that year of being home with my sons — born prematurely, they had fragile lungs — of necessity we went into social isolation. I lost practice with casual conversations. When we began venturing out again, I felt completely out of my depth. I’m a professional communicator. The situation made me question who I was. And, it made me panic.

The good news is that for me, the social anxiety didn’t last very long. I worked at what I called “people-ing.” I learned to overcome my nervous habits of speaking rapidly or stuttering as I tried to force the words out. Eventually, I found a trick that helped me calm my nerves. I would whisper to myself, “First they talk, then you talk, then they talk, then you talk,” to myself to find the rhythm of the conversation.

It got easier. I’ve been reminding myself of this a great deal as I prepare to return to campus this fall.

Peace Bridge with twins

A stroll along the Peace Bridge after a period of isolation

Sarah McGinnis

For 16 months, many of us have been on back-to-back Zoom calls and MS Teams chats, with clearly marked agendas and to-do lists. When was the last time you bumped into someone in a hallway? Would you know what to say? Or how to feel? I know I don’t. And that’s OK. The awkwardness is perfectly natural. When it comes to casual conversations, we’re all out of practice.

Manage your personal transition back to campus

While social and other forms of anxiety are normal and an expected reaction to the pandemic, our concerns and experiences are unique. Return to campus and the accompanying emotions are different for everyone, and there are supports to help you navigate this transitional period.

Find upcoming webinars to support your wellbeing. To register for a session on psychological hygiene (what it is and how to build a practice into your life), click here. To register for a session on languishing (what is it and strategies to overcome it), click here.

For a library of recorded webinars on mental health, click here


And if you happen to see me on campus, and we stumble through our first conversation, don’t worry about it. The awkwardness is bound to happen. I’ll probably just be whispering to myself, “First they talk, then I speak, then they talk…”

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Learn more about the strategy

September 7 – 10, 2021 is Safety and Wellness Week. Join us for a series of online workshops and events to celebrate and revitalize our UCalgary community’s strong health and safety culture. Learn more and register here