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Anti-Social Social Clubs

Open discussions about social anxiety are happening online in China. By identifying as ‘sociophobes,’ more young Chinese are openly challenging traditional social and work norms, and establishing new ones

By Qiu Guangyu Updated Sept.1

I didn’t want anyone to see me, or talk to anyone for quite a long time,” Sammi said. “Even when I went out for just a 10-minute walk to get a milk tea, I’d completely cover myself with a mask, scarf and hat. I’d jot down the drink I wanted in my phone’s notepad app in advance.” 
Sammi, 25, holds a graduate degree and has studied abroad. But her frequent bouts with social anxiety have made simple tasks seem insurmountable.  

“I remember one time I got home, I dropped the milk tea I bought all over the floor. I cried as I wiped it up and thought, ‘why is it so difficult for me to buy things?’”  

Until recently, the term “social anxiety” was medical jargon for most in China. But more are using it colloquially, particularly millennials and Generation Z, to describe their feelings of isolation and difficulties with social interactions.  

In November, 2021, China Youth Daily conducted a survey of 4,854 students from 255 colleges nationwide about social anxiety. More than 80 percent claimed they had mild symptoms, 6.9 percent had severe symptoms and 0.64 percent said they had been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD). Only 12.24 percent claimed to have no social anxiety issues.  

In the summer of 2021, another buzzword went viral – “social awesomeness,” a light-hearted opposite to social anxiety. After China approved clinical trials in January for PH94B, an odorless nasal spray to treat social anxiety, many on social media jokingly called it a “magic spray” that “turns anxiety into awesomeness.”  

But beyond self-diagnosis, the label “social anxiety” is empowering some younger Chinese with an emotional identity to navigate and challenge traditional norms, hierarchical views and social rituals in the world’s most populous country. 

Cultural Lag 
Zhang Zeze, a 31-year-old civil servant in Shandong Province, says there are two parts of her job that she finds unbearable.  

The first is public speaking, like at the speech competitions and trivia quizzes her office often holds. Every time she has to speak in front of people, Zhang says her heartbeat races, she turns pale and her mind goes blank.  

The second is the boozy banquets prevalent in Chinese officialdom and business culture, where guests must consume multiple rounds of baijiu – a clear liquor with a high percentage of alcohol by volume – and toast others in the order of their social standing. For the unfamiliar, they can be a minefield of social gaffes.  

Zhang told NewsChina that she had recently attended a four-hour business banquet where she secretly swapped her baijiu for milk tea. Although she still had to deliver toasts, they were alcohol-free. While Zhang loathes business banquets, she realizes that for colleagues who possess “social awesomeness” they are opportunities to advance their careers. 
Wang Shuixiong, professor of sociology at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, uses the term “cultural lag” to explain the increasing prevalence of social anxiety among young Chinese. 

Coined by the American sociologist William Fielding Ogburn in 1992, cultural lag refers to the phenomenon where social norms take time to catch up with economic and technological advancement. That lag often results in cultural clashes within society.  

Banquet culture is an example. As most younger Chinese were born as only children during the one-child policy, they developed ways of socializing that drastically differ from older generations, Wang told NewsChina. By the time they enter the workforce, banquets are a culture shock.  

“The mechanism behind drinking banquet culture establishes a set of rituals that define the social statuses of each guest – these rituals are usually deemed necessary in Chinese society,” Wang said.  

As younger workers discover their incomes, opportunities and performance reviews hinge on the decisions of older generations, they are forced to adapt and take part in these “culturally lagging” social rituals, which only compounds their anxieties, he added. 

Two Sides 
Zhang Zeze was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and takes medication. But on the outside, she is bubbly and easygoing. Talking to strangers or making business calls is not a big deal. “I feel quite at ease in one-on-one situations,” Zhang said.  

Ah Zhuang also feels like he has two sides. The 38-year-old graphic designer enjoys anime and gaming, and is active in online forums. But offline, he shies away from gatherings, except the occasional get-together with a few close friends.  

For him, the worst is being in a group of middle-aged men, even though he is not much younger. “When they talk, it’s all bragging, complacency and hypocrisy. Not a single sincere word comes out of their mouths,” Ah Zhuang told our reporter.  

But when in a small group of close friends, Ah Zhuang banters, tells jokes and feels completely uninhibited.  

“I hid this side of me ever since primary school and I never show it to strangers,” Ah Zhuang said. Even his career choice was influenced by his desire to avoid socializing, he said.  

Tang Xue is an online influencer from Hangzhou who makes videos and writes articles about her experiences with SAD. She also created several online groups where young people who identify as socio-phobes can express their feelings and opinions about family, life and work.  

“People write about the mental exhaustion they feel when they’re alone and how to bear loneliness over long periods of solitude. Some say these conversations make them feel much better. They’re healing for me too,” Tang said.  

Online groups and communities offer safe spaces. On Douban, China’s leading media review website, the group “I have Severe SAD” has more than 40,000 members. Another Douban group “SAD Sufferers Comfort Zone” has over 60,000 members.  

Zheng Dandan, professor of sociology at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, Hubei Province, focuses on social anxiety disorder in China’s younger generations. 
She observed that when facing a highly competitive workplace, many young people retreat into themselves as a defense mechanism. They voluntarily withdraw to avoid judgment: Some escape in gaming and online fiction, while others stay home all day instead of going out to socialize.  

Zheng argues that a major reason behind self-diagnosed social anxiety is that the internet, particularly social media, has weakened traditional social relationships. Many identify as having social anxiety to excuse themselves from social obligations.  

Zheng cited the changing views on marriage among Chinese youth. With previous generations in China, Zheng said that if a women was reluctant to get married and avoided socializing, she would not only face pressure from her family and society but also face difficulties in everyday life.  

“Single women in the past might have trouble doing everyday chores like carrying coal or installing appliances. But now platforms and apps solve those problems. Technological advances have made life much easier for introverts,” Zheng said.  

More and more people are identifying as introverts or sociophobes, which Zheng views positively as labels can be liberating.  

“In the past, life would be difficult without social interaction. But things have changed completely. People are still interested in social interaction, they just prefer other ways. Some people may look shy in real life, but in online communities, they are very engaged and talkative,” Zheng told NewsChina. 

Online to Offline 
Compared with millennials, Gen-Z are true digital natives. They are more comfortable with creating social lives online and refusing unnecessary social contact offline.  

Zhang Zeze envies her younger Gen-Z colleagues for the individual, free and casual ways they socialize at work. “With business banquets, they either attend gladly or refuse to go outright with none of the reservations or inner conflicts that those of my generation might have,” Zhang said.  

“Work for them is nothing but a way to make a living. Pleasing bosses or joining colleague gatherings – they don’t give a damn,” she added.  

Many younger generations have their own lexicons and social norms in online communities bonded by similar interests, such as games, comics, anime and online fiction. Live action role-playing (LARP) games, for instance, are a way to bring online interests to offline gatherings. 
Sammi LARPs to expand her social circle. She said she has difficulty maintaining long-term friendships because she constantly changed schools as a kid and later studied abroad. But lately, she has been LARPing with women she had never met before, and enjoys it.  

Professor Wang Shuixiong praised LARP for being a tool to help with social anxiety. The games, whose plots usually involve fantasies or murder mysteries, provide scenarios for people to interact in a free and creative way through a set character.  

However, he warned these games may hinder the ability to develop interpersonal relationships beyond a virtual setting. “[When LARPing] it’s fine to just keep interactions at a very basic level. This may cause some additional problems,” Wang told NewsChina.  

Ah Zhuang has encountered similar issues. The 38-year-old is active on dating apps, where he has connected with several women. He enjoys chatting with them online but is unwilling to meet up in real life. “I prefer to keep it online,” Ah Zhuang said. “Is that weird? I don’t know why I’m like this.”  

Professor Wang Shuixiong said that to avoid complications that may arise from switching between virtual and real relationships, online activities should be anchored in real emotional connections.  

Some are making progress in traditional settings. Sammi said she used to wear social anxiety as a mask to avoid social gatherings like banquets. But she also realizes their value as a place for exchange and is no longer averse to them. Zhang Zeze said exercising provides her a way to have authentic social experiences. “This kind of contact is real, and it is much more meaningful than baijiu banquets,” she said.