As two social beings, we pride ourselves on our friendly, cheerful behavior, and our acute sensitivity to the rhythms and vibes of others’ lives. We relish getting together with family, friends, and acquaintances. Then Covid-19 came along and put the kibosh on that. We found, as have millions, that when human contact was eliminated, we needed to turn to our backup generator of technology.
Initially, when socially quarantined, we felt trapped in our homes devoid of a social life and frankly were pissed. We longed to open our windows and shout out cheers to the front-line workers, followed by screams of anguish, as Peter Finch did in the movie, Network: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take this anymore.”
We found we could survive, thanks in a large degree to technology. It permitted us social get-togethers, mostly in the evenings. with our nearest and dearest, and not so nearest and dearest, on to a screen that resembled the old TV program, “Hollywood Squares” or “The Brady Bunch.” There we listened and talked. In some cases, we screen-shared photos, videos, documents, and covers of books we were reading. Often, we sipped a favorite wine or beer and toasted our mélange of friends, old and new.
As a rule, the first Zoom with a group went well. We gave quick summaries of our lives, how we were faring during the pandemic, whether we wore masks, went into grocery stores, or had food and medicines delivered to our door. We shared how much and what we disinfected and how often we were taking our temperature and maybe checking our oximeters, if we were lucky to find and buy them.
Yet, slowly after the first few meetings, we began to realize we were seeing and hearing people on a one-dimensional, sanitized basis. It became less of a rich, sensual experience and more of a convenience. It was like asking folks over for dinner without sharing food and wine, a lovely table setting, aromas, presentation, flowers, and the noisy din of conversation. There was no cooking together, uncorking of a bottle of wine, and no messy cleanup, which can be fun when done together.
Successive gatherings of the same groups typically continued this similar routine. To stick with the dinner-party analogy, the interactions became less of a satisfying meal that stuck with us. There was no fighting over who would pay the bill, how much to tip, no worry where to sit at the table or whom to sit with, few cliques to break up, and nobody to compare decisions with about what to order and jokingly tell not to hog the conversation or loaf of bread. And frankly the lack of substantive stuff began to make the experience feel a tad unreal and even bland, like foods prepared without adequate seasoning. We started to feel an emptiness once we left the table or “meeting.”
Here’s our point based on some hypothetical examples. Do we really care about Joan’s home-hair dye job or Kitty’s little-bitty kitty or even the bras Nancy bought online without having a real fit experience? And why might it matter that Donna bought masks in white, gray, or black while Susie purchased them in designers’ patterns and amazing colors? Also, should we be empathetic that Rhonda’s cheese souffle fell quickly, as did her mood when nobody asked for the recipe? Of course, we should, and we do. Some conversation about these matters matter! But this is not the conversation we now crave.
Many of us—or at least the two of us--are dying for deeper chit-chat to really get to know the people on our screens, how they’re managing now with so many challenges, what silver linings they are still able to glean, how they managed in the past and what they plan to do to manage better in the future when we hope life is far brighter.
So, we got to thinking even more--we have lots of time to ponder--once there’s a coronavirus vaccine and we feel good about venturing out and returning to our routines, what will happen to these Zoom friendships? Will we still spend time with any of the new folks we’ve met, or will they become a distant memory before long much like the people we “meet” on a plane trip or maybe in a long grocery store line? Will we even continue the Zoom gatherings if we live in distant cities, will we slowly revert to occasional group emails, or just let these newer friendships fade away and die a natural death from lack of nurturing?
Moreover, if we do get together in person, would those we don’t know well be the same in person as they are in their on-screen personas? Here’s what we mean about the latter question. On screen, Joan seems like a gem. We never met her in person. She was the spouse of a long-ago friend from grade school. What if we get together in person and discover that she’s pretentious, pontificates, and never lets us get in a word? With Zoom we at least can mute her microphone when she starts to go on and on. How will that work in real life? How will we react if Kitty keeps chattering about her kitty-cat in person? On Zoom sessions, it was a bit endearing since the cat kept her company. In real life, will we feel the same empathy when she talks kitty chatter all the time? And what about Donna’s extensive mask wardrobe? Will we want to know what she did with them—maybe, sewed them into a quilt as a souvenir of the tough pandemic? Who knows or cares? We do want to care. On Zoom, with one click we could “leave the meeting” for a break to the bathroom or to repour our wine. Bye, bye. In real life we might be stuck for a long time and find it difficult to get away.
Then we wonder more. Should we forgo leaving our houses ever again to socialize? It’s so much cheaper, easier, and involves less misheghas if we don’t. In person, there’s greater pressure to put on makeup, do our hair, pick out the right outfit to look good, like it’s class picture day.
What might a shift to human contact be like versus on-screen? Here are a few possibilities:
On screen: Where is Bernice? She’s always late. (There are others to talk to and it doesn’t matter.) Oh, here, she just logged on.
In person: Where is Bernice? I’ve been sitting in this restaurant waiting for her for 45 minutes. I’m annoyed and ready to leave.
On screen: You think as you look at your friend’s brown roots, “I knew she wasn’t a true blonde.”
In person: I like your hair color. When did you have it done? She responds: I don’t bleach my hair. I’m a natural blonde. Sure!
On screen: I love the view out your window? What lake is that?
In person visiting her at her home: Where is the lake I saw? She responds: Oh, that wasn’t real; it’s the screen saver I found online.
On screen: I was worried but decided it was nothing serious. I really feel fine. (Too many people are listening, and she doesn’t want to complain a lot in front of the group.)
In person: I’ve been in pain all week, tried to get to my doctor, and couldn’t get in. Then, she goes into an organ recital about her ailments and the medical system for more than 30 minutes. Rolling your eyes and starting to glance at your phone doesn’t help.
In pondering how our relationships will change once we feel comfortable venturing out and about, we are worried that lockdown and our coronavirus routines might have become entrenched. Live with any behavior over time, and it can become part of your regular routine.
While we look forward to meeting again in person, we feel the conditions we established for friendship via Zoom represented such a low bar—mostly pleasant yet superficial check-ins—that we might have lost some of our bearings about what’s needed to maintain the glue and nurture deeper bonds. How do we get that back to that and build new ones so people aren’t replaced by robots? Before you laugh, that’s a possibility. Robots already exist as pets for older folks, as vacuums that swirl around the floor to clean up, and as kitchen aids. Before long they could also become your friends, even your besties!
Here’s what it might be like. Your robot friend zooms up to your front door with arms holding dinner ingredients, wine and a bouquet of flowers. Since we’re really missing human contact and some semblance of friendship, we are eager to invite them in. Robot quickly proves it’s the ideal guest. It’s programmed to heat the meal it’s delivering, set the table, pour the wine, not make a mess, fuss or hog the conversation, never complain about what’s served, who it’s seated next to, and do all the cleanup. Think of that! It might even become your favorite friend over time. After all, we might have become so de-sensitized that we don’t even recognize the difference. We sit comfortably together on the sofa after the meal, each with headsets on, enjoying a shared virtual reality. When it’s time for bed, it knows how to turn off its whirring to sleep for eight solid hours and then be up, perky come morning to make the coffee perfectly just as you requested. Who needs more than that?
Oh, we do, and that’s the point. In the end, we want something deeper from our relationships, not always of the soul-searching, angst-ridden variety but enough substance so we want to look into each other’s eyes, share meaningful conversations, make it clear we each have listened, and reply spontaneously rather than from a computer-generated script.
Most important, we want to cherish all the differences among us, something robots might never be able to do, at least not in the immediate future, we suspect.
Let’s not forget that when we continue to Zoom schmooze by having our get-togethers, it reflects why we wanted to come together in the first place. People need people. For now, virtual friendships will have to suffice until we get back to the old normal, whatever that was and will be.