A retired teacher, a Midwestern minister and a mother of two teenagers all dial into a Zoom room. For the next 90 minutes, they do something their typical adult lives don’t usually afford them a chance to do: Listen to others’ perspectives, and have others listen to them. And after three rounds of answering not-so-standard questions, like “What sense of purpose guides you in your life?,” the group leaves the room, feeling deeply connected.
Or so goes the logic of Living Room Conversations – an online platform through which volunteer hosts help small groups of people discuss timely topics such as voting, gun rights and their vision for America. Founded in 2010 by two women on differing sides of the political spectrum, with the input of dialogue experts, Living Room Conversations have sought to show how people could have civil encounters across lines of difference. At one point, these discussions, which have always been free to join, happened in actual living rooms. But when the coronavirus mandated a strict lockdown, the conversations went online-only, and became a means for alleviating loneliness, too.
Maybe you’re signing up for these conversations because you’re lonely, or maybe you’re hosting a conversation because you’re worried about someone in your network who’s isolated.
With many offices, gyms, churches and other places where people normally connect shut down, Living Room Conversations is one of several social platforms currently experiencing a surge of new interest. Since mid-March, more than 1,000 people have signed up for the discussions, and the website has had 62 per cent more page views than it had at the same time last year. Joan Blades, one of the platform’s co-founders, attributes the traffic spike to social isolation.
“It’s a way of taking care of people,” Blades said. “Maybe you’re signing up for these conversations because you’re lonely, or maybe you’re hosting a conversation because you’re worried about someone in your network who’s isolated.”
Research links loneliness to severe health consequences – including chronic stress, poor sleep, heart trouble and even premature death, while studies associate meaningful social connections with physiological well-being and longevity. Even in pre-pandemic times, finding meaningful social connections could be challenging. In a 2019 survey of 2,000 American adults, nearly half said they found it difficult to make new friends.
According to Dr Arthur Aron, a psychology professor at Stony Brook University and co-creator of the popular 36 Questions that Lead to Love, one way to find closeness with strangers is to “do exciting things together” and share a “feeling you have things in common.” Mobile applications – like BarkHappy for dog-walkers, Peanut for moms, and BumbleBFF for anyone – can help, by allowing people to easily meet in person those with whom they share common interests. And platforms like VolunteerMatch can help strangers connect over shared community service activities, like tutoring, gardening or cooking for a soup kitchen. Some research finds that volunteering itself can reduce feelings of isolation.
But in the age of social distancing, meeting in person may seem too close for comfort, especially for people in high-risk groups.
One way to find closeness with strangers is to “do exciting things together” and share a “feeling you have things in common.”
“It’s been very taxing on me,” said Paula Johnson, a retired chemistry teacher who lives alone in Houston. As an involved grandmother, avid churchgoer and active volunteer in her community, Johnson typically has an abundance of connections. But she says the lockdown has her feeling isolated, and as if her “usefulness has been curtailed.”
To cope, Johnson turned to the virtual world of Living Room Conversations, and began opening up about experiences she wouldn’t otherwise get to talk about, like the racism she’s experienced as a Black woman living in the suburbs. “People were surprised I was so vulnerable with sharing, and it felt good to hear them say, ‘Wow, I wasn’t aware of that,’ or ‘You know, I never saw it that way,’” said Johnson, who now regularly hosts conversations, too.
There’s a science to that kind of open communication, Aron said. “When you have questions that encourage responsiveness, it creates an opportunity to show you care, and lots of research shows that feeling you’re being heard is key to creating closeness.”
Of course, there are also ways to connect without baring your soul. Some outgoing types don’t hesitate to post flyers around their neighborhoods to organise creative, socially distant ways to meet up with neighbors the old-fashioned way – in person – such as a dog parade, curbside cocktails, a garden tour. But not everyone is inclined to be an organiser.
When you have questions that encourage responsiveness, it creates an opportunity to show you care, and lots of research shows that feeling you’re being heard is key to creating closeness.
That might explain the popularity of a New York-based MeetUp group called “I wanted to do that ... just not alone!” Through the group’s online portal, organisers plan bike rides, park outings and other events for anyone seeking both adventure and company.
Shawn Jobe, a Queens resident and the group’s main organiser, says his involvement began 10 years ago with a revelation. “I was in school and working, and one of my bosses recommended MeetUp because he saw that I had no life,” Jobe said with a chuckle. “So by overtaking the planning of this group, it’s held me accountable to dedicate a chunk of my time to socializing.”
Jobe, who has helped the group grow from roughly 400 members to nearly 24,000, says most members are not originally from the area, or have otherwise lost their network. “Everyone is there to meet new friends, so it kind of puts everyone on equal footing,” said Jobe, who has met many of his own close friends, including a current roommate, through the group.
Since the start of the pandemic, Jobe and fellow organisers have taken extra precautions – all events are outdoors, and social distancing is encouraged. He said it has been stressful, since the organisers feel responsible for everyone’s safety. But he added that the group has grown significantly during lockdown and, in some ways, is more important than ever.
“Human beings are social creatures, and people have told me they rely on this group for socializing,” he said.
Jobe added that he felt especially grateful for the way the group served people with social anxiety, who, he said, may not have many other social outlets.
Still, while these platforms may welcome vulnerability, they are not meant to replace professional mental-health counseling.
“We go places that are very deep, we often have to break out the tissues,” said Shaunelle Curry, a Los Angeles-based media entrepreneur and a regular Living Room Conversations host. “Some of these people haven’t been sleeping, or are disconnected from family members they could process their emotions with, so I always start out by saying, ‘I’m not an expert,’ and if people do have professional resources, they can share them in the chat.”
But, Curry said, even though the conversations don’t directly constitute professional counselling, they can help create self-awareness and lead some to realize they need more professional support. “Many people on the calls have said, ‘I don’t have another space like this,’ or, ‘I thought I was the only one who had this experience.’”
By Julia Hotz © The New York Times