How do we reconnect after more than a year apart? Perhaps the answer is encompassed in a German concept, Stammtisch, which I came across recently while chatting to Dr James Arkell, a consultant psychiatrist.
Our conversation was part of a series of "Inspire the Mind" online talks organised by King’s College, London. We were discussing how we have all felt, to a greater or lesser extent, disconnected from each other during lockdown. Dr Arkell, who works at the Nightingale Hospital in London, mentioned the term, which is German for "regulars’ table". It could prove the perfect solution to post-lockdown socialising, he says, and is something he recommends to patients.
Keep it casual
Stammtisch denotes an informal group meeting that routinely happens at the same time and place. Historically, it was an all-male affair that might involve socialising and card playing, and often political or philosophical discussions. Now it denotes a friendly get-together of about six people.
This sort of regular gathering is an excellent way to ease us back into our new social lives. First, the fact that this is a routine slot, say every week or fortnight, at the same time and place, with the same group, means there is no organisational hassle. "This, in turn, means you are more likely to attend, especially if the commitment just becomes part of your diary," Dr Arkell says. "One gift of Covid was that when work was busy, I didn’t feel an additional burden of having to arrange my social life. Now it is easing, I don’t want to feel that again. Stammtisch takes the pressure out."
This is especially relevant if you feel shy or socially anxious. As Tom Hodgkinson, editor at the Idler magazine and Stammtisch fan, says: "Even the most gregarious of us are feeling nervous about going to scary parties again."
Another benefit of Stammtisch is that its regularity means we do not have to keep making choices about who we will meet or when. It is often the element of choice that stresses us, rather than the meeting itself.
Of course, we may not always be able to show up, but the fact that we are always included also diffuses any sense of fear of missing out. We can be comforted by the fact that others will be thinking of us in our absence. There is continuity and connection beyond the hours spent together; it gives us a sense of belonging.
Reconnecting with others is vital for our well-being. Dr Carla Croft, a consultant clinical psychologist for Team Barts Health, says: "We are social animals, and in fact pack animals. Evolutionary psychology reminds us that we live healthier, longer, safer lives when we are engaged and connected socially. Research is clear that having a rich and busy social life is a key factor in many markers of health."
Dr Arkell agrees. "We know that extended groups beyond family and immediate friendships are an important resilience factor and Stammtisch is an easy way to make that happen," he says.
Yet while the experts agree on how vital connection is, when we are feeling low and need help we are least likely to meet up with others. Stammtisch is a solution.
Dr Arkell has his own Stammtisch group. Doctors and other professionals such as lawyers have some advantages in setting up a Stammtisch, since their work tends to require regular collaboration. Those of us who work from home on a more freelance basis may need to set up our own bespoke versions.
Liz Halston is also a Stammtisch enthusiast. A blogger and mother to two stepsons, she now lives in the UK, but her original Stammtisch was in her native Germany. Setting up a Stammtisch can give us the motivation to leave what she describes as "our homely caves" as we emerge from lockdown.
As I emerge from my homely cave, my Stammtisch plan is for a regular meet up at a local cafe with a few chums. Even if I will be thanking Germany for this new cultural import, a tiny secret - I still prefer an Italian-style coffee.
The Daily Telegraph