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I once sat in a breakout room for ten minutes, and after my smile and my “hey so…” at the start, no one said a word, or even appeared on the screen. Cameras were off, mics were muted — it was the breakout room nightmare.
That kind of conversational paralysis has not been isolated to that one class on Zoom, or in fact, to the virtual screen. That awkward, who-will-speak and what-will-we-speak-about standstill has seemed everywhere this pandemic year. Yes, I’ve been in breakouts where the 60-second countdown clock could not have popped up quicker, or on FaceTimes with a friend where we realized, right at the start, that we had nothing new to share. But I’ve also walked on the street, sort of recognized someone in their mask just as I forgot what class we had together, smiled hello, asked a question, and gotten nothing in return.
Conversations, even the pre-work breakout room type, require complementary maneuvers — demonstrated in questions and answers, or comments that piggyback on another. Humans build our discussions that way, with response layered upon response upon response. And when participants abdicate their roles, the interaction comes to a stop.
For many of us, or at least, for me, there is a natural inclination to vomit words into that silence, to jabber on and on until we get a reply or leave. But connections that get past the masks and Zoom rectangles first require small talk, and even that requires more than just one person.
I’ve had a few small talk successes. I once bonded with a stranger in the dining hall line over microwaved chocolate oat milk. I found that the necessary break-out room tone of voice is between enthusiasm and apathy — the kind that communicates “can you believe they’re making us do this … on Zoom?” in solidarity with the group.
Mostly, I’ll admit, I’ve failed — though I would argue that those losses were not all my fault. The pandemic infected and paralyzed our words, just as it did the same with our lives. We learned words like “Zoom fatigue” and “social distancing.” We used phrases like “I hope that you and your family are staying well” to open emails. We thought ad nauseam about the epic, unimaginable parts of life like death and what comes after — not exactly small talk material.
When I made attempts to avoid Covid-19 in conversation, I found that I could not. I tried chatting about hobbies or courses — but gave up when that ended with “wow, what a weird year …” and silence. For a memorable two weeks, I tried to learn and put into practice some classic sports talk. I had never been that good at it, but talking about games seemed like a low-stakes winner. Even sports trailed off into “wow, unprecedented …” And once a conversation has finished that way, that’s the end of that. Pandemic losses are critical “large talk” material, but those same impacts frustrate the small talk that must come first.
We have an expression in my family that goes, “just making conversation.” It’s a useful one. Stuck in silence on a walk or at dinner or in front of the mirror brushing our teeth, I can turn to my sister and say whatever I want, whatever I think might inspire conversation. When the attempt fails, and our discussion does not progress, it’s not awkward. I can let her know that I was, really, “just making conversation” and try again.
The saying acts as a kind of reassurance that I had no hidden agenda aside from being friendly and passing the time. It works as a free pass from the anxiety of small talk — the clumsiness of throwing topic after topic into the void. Because if something should go wrong, and students in the breakout room blankly stare into their screens or the classmate in the mask pretends not to hear and leaves, it’s ok. You did your best. And who knows, the next conversation might go right.
I am, perhaps, too late for this semester, but not for our more in-person summer and fall. We all have months of connection-building to make up for, and I think we will need to give ourselves permission to get to it. Just make conversation. There’s a good chance that the person you met in the Zoom square next to you was always hoping that you would.
Charlotte R. Moses ’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Adams House.
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