Our aversion to a 'return to normal' goes beyond just the office. Here's why

It's time to consider which prepandemic obligations we don't want to take on again.

(CNN)As indoor dining reopened in my town, I watched three 20-something women shriek and gossip over zinfandel in a local restaurant. I was there, briefly, in my N95 mask to pick up my takeout.

It occurred to me in that moment, that for as much as I missed dining in at restaurants, I didn't miss that. I didn't want to be at the table next to loud people, even when their aerosols no longer contained a deadly contagion.

There is a chance to reset

    To be clear, I want the pandemic to be over, but there are so many things I don't want to go back to. Coworkers sneezing in open workspaces, for instance. Crowded weekend malls. Obligatory birthday brunches. Or cocktail hours of any kind where we have to mingle and make small talk with strangers. One of the silver linings of forced social distancing has been the chance to reset -- to hold close those we consider dear and gladly forgo having to dish excuses to everyone else.
      Who's looking forward to co-workers sneezing in the office? Nobody.
      "I never want to go back to what normal used to mean," said Tori Neville, a communications professional who has been working from her Hudson Valley, New York, home since the pandemic hit last year. "I love working from home and not having to do things just to show face. My life is so calm, my anxiety is way down. I'm more connected to my family and to myself. My focus is clearer than ever."

      Who will go back to packed spaces?

      More than 50% of employees don't want to return to office life, according to a recent Pew study. But while it may be easy not to miss rush-hour commutes and ice-cold conference rooms, many have also formed an aversion to formerly enjoyable social pastimes they now just can't imagine going back to.
        Andy Humm, an LGBTQ activist and media maker who wrote theater reviews for more than 30 years, can't imagine going back to packed spaces like before. "If we ever do go back -- even if this pandemic is completely over -- I hope that wearing masks in legitimate theaters and movie theaters becomes the rule," he said.
        Have some of us who once considered ourselves social butterflies become wallflowers during a year of stay-at-home? Are we, perhaps, more discerning about how we might plan social outings after a year of rethinking how social encounters could harm us?
        We know more than ever that our time on this planet is limited, and it's just not worth meeting up with that old college friend we never really liked that much anyway. Or our reward-to-risk ratio no longer values a meal out with raucous patrons at the next table.

        Some people are more anxious

        Some of us are more socially anxious than we were. After all, many of us had more than a year of training ourselves to undo the social impulses we've built over a lifetime: embracing th