Michiana Chronicles: My Online Social Hour

Jun 4, 2020

Credit Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images

In this strange new world, it can be challenging to maintain a social life. Some people want to be relieved of social pressures, but many of us feel isolated. Along come the French with a solution: the virtual apéro, the coronavirus-internet version of the traditional late-afternoon social drink at a café. After reading about this trend, I emailed a Parisian friend to ask her about it. "Yes," she said. "My friends and I do this. We have a drink. We talk. Sometimes we have dance parties. We crank up the music and go crazy in our living rooms." As with most French ideas, I went only half way with this one. No virtual dance parties for me. But I wanted a social hour. The bigger screen is better, but even smartphones work for this purpose.

I contacted a friend in New York, Dan Curley, someone I hardly even knew in college but got to know through Facebook, where my college friends congregate. Our "friends lists" overlap, but we each know possibly dozens of other people who could easily be friends with both of us. Dan agreed to be my co-host and take charge of the Zoom technology, and we drew up guest lists. We decided to de-Frenchify the project, partly to remove the suggestion that it had to center on alcohol. We call our virtual social hour "tea time."

We could take one of two directions--focus on a regular group of close friends, or invite an ever-changing cycle of new guests, including people whom we admire but only barely know. After hosting a few teas, we settled on something in-between: a fairly stable core of close friends to whom we add one or two other guests each week. Five is pretty much the practical limit if everyone is going to have a chance to talk. The slight delay in transmission, combined with the difficulty of picking up social cues, makes it impossible to have a rapid-fire discussion, let alone to break into groups. Even with a group of five, I find myself directing traffic so that everyone has a chance to speak.

We meet weekly (again, dialing back the French plan), which gives us the pleasure of anticipation without the burden of daily duties. In this sense, too, our model is more English than French. But you could imagine other models that might work better for you. If you're a middle-aged couple separated from your elderly parents, or if you're a grandparent separated from the grandbabies, you could establish daily or weekend tea times that connect you to the lives that matter most, restoring your spirit and maintaining your energy. It helps to formalize it, put it on the calendar, treat it as a real visit. And have something to drink. This is a ritual.

I foresee my tea-time events going forward even after the pandemic has died down. I have local friends, but there's no substitute for college or high school friends who make you feel like a kid again, care-free and mischievous. It would be wonderful to live close enough for in-person gatherings, but our tea times help us to keep up our rapport. And over time, we can visit with so many other friends.

So, turn the internet to its best uses: that's my suggestion for all of you. You can't avoid the daily political and economic news, but you can seek out another kind of news--the thoughts and stories of the people you love, headlines of the heart.

Music: "Relaxation Cafe" by  Lewis Luong