Make Zoom Socializing More Fun

Virtual get-togethers can be awkward. Tips to make them fun!

Posted Jul 10, 2020

As a professor, I spend much of my working life on Zoom—teaching, advising, planning (so much planning), and supervising research teams. Much has been written about "Zoom fatigue." That's not this post. 

(Pro tip: Train yourself not to look at your own picture. Then you're not monitoring your behavior in light of what you think other people are thinking about you.)

This post is about playing on Zoom. 

Many families and friends are using Zoom, Skype, Facebook, and other video forums to maintain ties during these stressful times. For example, my husband's family meets every Sunday for a weekly check-in. Other people get together for virtual cocktail hours or book clubs.

Reaching out to loved ones during stress is natural. In fact, Bowlby's attachment theory says that's exactly what we should do. The attachment behavioral system allows us to use others as a secure base to help us continue to explore and stay strong when we are frightened. These are frightening times.  

What strikes me about many of these weekly Zoom chats, however, is how awkward they are. Friend after friend reports cringing and feeling they have to participate, and that they should participate, and that they do participate out of a sense of duty. But not out of a sense of excitement.  

So what I'd like to do here is to suggest a few reasons why these get-togethers might feel so awkward and make suggestions of what makes them work well. Comments and good suggestions are strongly encouraged!  

Why get-togethers may be awkward 

I am noticing several things that seem to increase the awkwardness of regularly scheduled Zoom chats:

  • People may be family or know each other, but don't spend much time together, so don't know each other that well
  • Gatherings lack a clear purpose
  • Get-togethers lack an organizational structure

If this sounds like the formula for a bad meeting, there's a reason for it. It is. Business meetings flounder when they aren't well organized and purposeful and don't end on time. Why shouldn't social family meetings flounder as well?

But we're family! In my experience, few friends or families write agendas before gatherings, yet many of us enjoy family visits. Shouldn't we just be able to hang out together and enjoy each other's company?

I would note a couple of differences between hanging out in person and hanging out on Zoom:

  • Zoom groups are often larger and it's a 'meeting of the whole.' I come from a large family. We might all hang out together in the living room for a specific activity, like opening Christmas presents. But if we're just hanging out, we break into small groups. A few people might be talking books in the kitchen. There's definitely a few making fun of the TV. And probably a couple more are taking a walk or playing a game together. We are all 'together.' But we're not sitting around having one big lose conversation. When we are together in the same room, there are often several simultaneous conversations, someone is reading and another is checking their phone. The Zoom discussion format of 'meeting as a whole' is quite rare.
  • There's no focal activity. Often family gatherings have one or more focal activity that organizes an event. It could be as ritualized as watching the SuperBowl or Thanksgiving or as informal as a barbecue. But it gives structure to a gathering so you have something to talk about. That really helps. Sociologists have long noted that game nights, or bowling, or playing bridge ease the awkwardness of trying to sustain conversation over long periods. They give you something to do.
  • No one's in charge. Friend or healthy adult families are fairly egalitarian, with friends, parents, spouses, and siblings all being treated more or less equally and with respect. That's great for family gatherings, but can be awkward with a large group trying to have a conversation.  
  • When does it end? Social gatherings are often most awkward at their beginnings (what are we doing in this shared space?) and in their ends (is it time to leave yet?). Family gatherings can be awkward for the same reason. We often rely on tried and true excuses: I have to go home and feed the dog. It's bedtime for the kids. You must be tired! Well, got to leave soon or I'll be driving in the dark. Zoom offers fewer ritualized reasons to break up.

So what works?

I have a few observations about social meetings of friends and family via Zoom and other venues that seem to help things go well. I'd welcome more positive suggestions in the comments.

  • Make it small. Three to six people seems like a good number of folks to chat with as a group. They all fit on your screen. You won't talk over each other too much. Invite folks who have similar but diverse interests. Make an effort to have one or two who are just good conversationalists.
  • Set a time limit. I have two weekly get-togethers I really enjoy. One is half an hour. One is 45 minutes. In both, time seems to fly by and, although we sometimes go a few minutes over, we are pretty good at ending on time. I often find myself wishing for more. But that helps me look forward to next week. I also know that it will be coming up, so start thinking about what I can share to make the conversation livelier for all. It's a different kind of accountability.
  • Someone should host. Although our groups are very informal, all successful chats I've been in have a host who keeps things going. They ask open questions to each guest, have a story or two to share that we can all laugh at, and make sure everyone is included. Others share that role, as modeling taking responsibility for everyone having a good time makes others step up to the plate. You might even formally rotate hosting. If this was a book group or jam session or bridge party or game night, you'd naturally do that. It helps to have a host at a virtual get together as well.  
  • Try an activity. Games are just fun and many can be played via Zoom. In mixed groups where conversation can be tough, short silly games (charades, 20 questions, or more formal ones) can provide giggles and a way to spend time together without working hard at finding something to say. My favorite: Mad Libs.

Bottom line

Sustained conversation over a long period of time is tough. In person, we often manage it by breaking into small groups and having activities that give us something to talk about and focus on. In person, outside life provides natural times when a get-together ends. You can't do that online.

Creating time limits, smaller groups, and facilitating conversational flow through hosting and activities can help make socializing a good part of these difficult times.

Please add your own positive suggestions in comments. What works for you?