Picture this pre-pandemic gathering: You join a long country kitchen table that seats 16 women. Your perch at one end of the table allows you to talk to the women on your left and right. It is unlikely that you will move to the opposite end of the table during the next hour and half. So you leave having met two people—not bad.
But here’s the thing: Zoom does gatherings better.
I never expected to make new friends online during the pandemic, but for the last four months, I have met with 15 other women in the digital Zoom space on a weekly basis. We are all women of a ‘certain age,” all NextTribe members. Some of us are working from home; some are retired and some are seeking to climb out of the pit of unemployment caused by the pandemic.
Technology Nurtures Interpersonal Connection—What?!?
For a long time, I’ve read articles lamenting the way technology is crippling our social lives, but now I’ve got a whole new perspective. What is happening to me?
I am firmly in the middle of the introvert/extrovert continuum—perfectly happy entertaining myself, but also that person who is always talking to strangers. Skillful at finding common ground, I make connections in the produce section at the grocery store, while buying a flower pot, or while walking the dog and chatting up my neighbors who painted their house magenta and teal (it’s Austin, so what do you expect).
Technology has never been a big part of my life. I’m not a consistent social media poster and although I have Instagram and Facebook accounts—full disclosure—I use them mainly to spy on my adult son and daughter. The other thing is, I am committed to keeping my personal life protected at all costs, which means when I do use social media or technology, it is for professional purposes. Few people get invited into my internal world. This strategy keeps my emotions cloistered and everyday life free from drama.
The most interesting aspect about my weekly Zoom sessions is that I have never been in the same room with most of these women. Yes, the majority of us live in the Austin, Texas area, but some are from the West Coast, the Midwest, and the East Coast. When the pandemic first broke out, our in-person Thursday morning coffee gatherings in Austin went digital. I initially thought our exchanges might become stale, our emotions thwarted by the screen, but truly I’ve had the opportunity to learn deeply about so many women in a way that would have been impossible over coffee in a brick-and-mortar cafe.
Make New Friends Online: Superficial to Significant
In these last few months, we have evolved through standard issues for those who were Zoom newbies. There’s the Technical Crash Course we all start with: How do I move from speaker view to gallery view? Can you hear me—where’s the mute button? Wait, I can change my background?! Then we make our way through the particulars of Zoom Etiquette: Why do I keep feeling like I’m interrupting everyone? Can I eat while we’re together? What’s appropriate to put in chat? (Answer: Pretty much anything). Our group facilitator is a Zoom Master and has gotten all of us up to speed..
Progressing past technical difficulties, the discussion moved to How Are You Managing During Shelter at Home? We spoke about our fears of catching a virus that had appeared out of nowhere (most of us are in an at-risk age group); the bewilderment and grief over the loss of our previous lives; and for some, the endless days spent in blissful togetherness with adult children and spouses of many years.
We comforted those who did not have the privilege of a work-from-home job and were in near panic about how to pay the bills. We shared tips on how to source food and gave our opinions on whether to risk in-store shopping or use curbside pickup or delivery.
As weeks turned into months, we entered intimate, best-friend territory—with heartfelt personal anguishes and empathetic validations.
As weeks turned into months, we entered intimate, best-friend territory—with heartfelt personal anguishes and empathetic validations. Here are a few excerpts:
“My adult son moved home at the beginning of the pandemic. Now he’s decided to move out and I am devastated.”
“I have just found out my husband of 20 years has a relationship with a woman on Facebook and I’m in shock.”
“I am overwhelmed with grief and loss when I think about those suffering because of systemic racism.”
“My adult bi-racial son is afraid to leave our block–how do I validate his fear and still encourage him to find joy in life?”
There have been many instances of silently bearing witness to our friends’ pain and maybe even wiping away tears.
Alone but Not Lonely
The weeks have turned into months and these relationships have grown sweeter. I am astounded to realize I have memorized quite a few details about each woman.
In gallery view, each rectangle represents a life lived fully–although we have never met. But I know Bridget cares deeply about supporting the arts and has filled her home with all manner of photographs, paintings, and sculptures. And then there is Gwen who loves to exercise and whose head sits in the lower third of her rectangle because she is bouncing on an exercise ball while she regales us with her wry sense of humor. Meet Pamela, a wisp of a woman who is fiercely strong, has kind eyes, and musical hands that move in American Sign Language as she says “good-bye, love you,” at the close of our meetings.
How strange and wonderful that these women have become my most intimate friends. They represent a safe and reliable place for my feelings of pandemic confusion and frustration. It may seem trite, but we laugh; we cry, and somehow, I feel better. I click the “Leave Meeting” button with my emotional reserve filled-up.
My hope is that someday soon we’ll be able to gather in the same physical place and further nurture these friendships. I’m sure I’ll experience another kind of learning curve, such as remembering not to reach for “Mute” when I need to cough. But now that we’ve built a solid friendship foundation through science, I look forward to the time when I can see the whole of my new pals, feel the energy in their bodies, touch their arms when they make me laugh, and say good-bye not with a touch of a button but an expansive, loving embrace.