Reflections on changing behaviour patterns and the ‘new normal’ from Educational Psychologist Jenny Feeney of Bucks County Council.

In my mid 30s I had the opportunity to move overseas. Emigrating was exhilarating but I totally underestimated the impact it would have on my sense of self in the world. From the moment we are born we are constantly creating ‘schemas’ that help us to predict what the world looks like and how others will behave. And suddenly, those years of internalising closely observed social rules throughout my childhood weren’t so useful in a sea of people who were socialised using different schemas… Our brains are marvellous things but the short-cuts that allow us to function also create errors in our thinking. We seek those who behave in familiar ways and are suspicious of those who behave differently to us. And so, we land on unhelpful prejudices such as, ‘New Yorkers are rude’, whereas those same New Yorkers considered me (someone to whom the adjectives ‘over confident’ and ‘bossy’, have been liberally applied) to be shy and incapable of getting myself heard. Wow, it was a learning curve just to get my order in at the local bagel store.

So, fast forward a few years, having returned to the UK and ‘normality’ I once again find myself in a whole new culture… one of physical distancing. Suddenly it is ‘normal’ to stand apart from people, give them a wide berth in the street or supermarket aisle, have no physical contact, not help them to reach things on the supermarket shelf even! When I go out to the supermarket I find myself worrying that people must find me rude, stand-offish, even strange. Somehow I don’t fit it all over again. And having never been someone you might consider ‘bubbly’ I find putting on a smile you can spot at 6 feet to be excruciating!  

I think it is important to recognise how important those subconscious schemas are for managing our anxiety and knowing how to behave. We are in a world where it feels as though there are no ‘social schema’… even the ‘going to the supermarket schema’ has to be re-written.  But one thing experience and research has told me is that people are resilient, our brains will adjust and we will incorporate these new ways of living into new schemas to be kept ‘on file’ for the future. And in the meantime? Well we can’t be getting it ‘wrong’ and we can influence what becomes the new ‘socially acceptable’. So I’m off to practise shouting ‘HOW YOU DOING?!’ from 6 feet away… it seemed to work in Brooklyn anyway.

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