Chitchatting in the age of Zoom

I value, and miss, nondirected conversations. A lot of good ideas can come from them. But how do you replicate them in a videoconference?

Ann Hermes/Staff
Monitor editors and reporters take part in a meeting on Zoom on July 28, 2020.

It was 9:27 a.m., three minutes until the Monitor-wide, daily Zoom meeting. I’d been trying to log in early to these, hoping to promote the kind of nondirected conversation (read: “chitchat”) that can be so valuable and yet is so lacking in this work-from-home era. 

The first few people to come online for a teleconference feel free to greet and talk with one another. As more people join, the conversation slows. By the time the 12th or 13th person arrives, talk ceases. Instead we stare into one another’s eyes from our bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms until the meeting host arrives. 

I value, and miss, nondirected conversations. A lot of good ideas can come from them. They strengthen friendships and build teams. As editor of the Monitor Weekly, I chose to hand-deliver copies of the magazine to my colleagues in the newsroom when the box of issues arrived. Sometimes I’d be placing a magazine on an empty desk. But sometimes it was an occasion to compliment writers on their stories, talk with people with whom I didn’t usually interact, or even stop and – if it seemed OK to interrupt – ask how it was going, what they were up to. Sometimes I’d float an idea: “What if we used the inside front and back covers of the Weekly to create a poster?” “What do you think about maybe bringing back the  Op-Ed section?” “What if we did an entire issue as a comic book?” (Don’t worry: I realized the folly of that one as soon as I heard myself say it out loud.) Communication is so deliberate now.

My eldest son works in business development for a global entrepreneur. He has a remote team – made even more so now, with no one in his office. I asked him how he handles chitchat. 

My son noted that he has more excuses to tack casual conversations onto regular one-on-one check-in calls. But when I pressed him he had a suggestion: You might try this team-building exercise I used when I led those long bike-camping trips, he said. 

I logged into the Monitor’s daily Zoom meeting and waited. Three others joined me: an intern, a photographer, and a graphic designer. We started chatting. It was taking a while for others to show up. That’s because, one of us discovered, the meeting had been canceled. I suddenly had an idea. Before we go, I said, may I try something? “Rose, thorn, bud” is my son’s bike-trip exercise: Tell something you’re happy about (rose), something that bothers you (thorn), and something you’re looking forward to (bud). 

After some cajoling on my part, we began. To all our surprise, three of us had the same thorn and rose: The thorn was the burden of living with the pandemic and all its uncertainty, restrictions, and frustration. And the rose? Being at home with spouses, children, parents. Two sides of the COVID-19 crisis loomed equally large in our minds. It was unexpected, reassuring, unifying. 

It was a moment. 

And it’s why I’ve strengthened my resolve to show up at Zoom meetings just a little early. Even if it turns out there isn’t one.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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