Which do you want first: the good news or the bad news? The bad news is that we are having some trouble communicating these days! The good news is that we have every intention of being well-mannered. I drew these conclusions after fielding questions from the MR community and via MR’s Thoughtline for our etiquette column. The quest to answer these inquiries reminded me of one of artist Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, which has been installed on movie theatre marquees and engraved in benches, and says: “It is in your self-interest to find a way to be very tender.” Together, we navigate quarantine-era social anxieties, equal parts tender and tongue-in-cheek, below. Pinkies up!
How do you end a phone call or a Zoom when the person on the other end knows you have nowhere to be?
Conversation termination, a covetable skill indeed. Remember that scene from the 1998 Parent Trap in which one of the twins takes a phone call in a closet and fakes a “lost connection” by crinkling a candy wrapper into the receiver? The point I’m trying to make is that this issue has plagued people since Lindsay Lohan was a pre-teen.
A few suggestions of my own:
“Well, it appears this conversation has reached its logical conclusion this evening.”
“Well, it was wonderful to hear your voice, Sebastian, I’m glad we got this opportunity to talk.”
“I have to send something for work.”
“I keep a busy schedule these days so I must be on my way.”
Over Instagram, a few other people chimed in with ideas: “Fake another Zoom call,” “Pretend you’re starving and need to cook dinner or else you’ll perish,” and “If you live with someone else, say you made plans to watch a certain movie.” Might I suggest Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell? There’s an entire scene where he sings a Wreckless Eric song with his eyes closed.
Someone else suggested wrapping things up with the phrase that is anathema to any conversation: “Well, I better get back to my taxes!” (The deadline to file was extended from April 15 to July 15.) This could be a good strategy, I think, although I did this in earnest a few weeks ago while I was filing my taxes. Then I didn’t call my friend back, and I think we’re in a fight now. Please confirm, Maxson?
I’m too tired and anxious to talk to my friends, plus I have FaceTime and Zoom fatigue, but I feel bad ignoring them.
I feel this—I think virtual socializing is exhausting and is in some ways a greater undertaking than regular-socializing, because the pool of possibility is much more expansive… you’re not limited to the local social circle you usually pal around with! Any one of your friends in any location is available to talk! Mehta in Maryland! Daniel in Des Moines! Adelaide in Abilene! They’re all waiting by the phone. I still have friends that I haven’t arranged a time to talk with yet, and I schlep some of that guilt around my house every day.
For this, I recommend the art of deferment: just let your friends know, “I’m feeling spread pretty thin right now, but I’d love to talk next week,” or in a few weeks, something to that effect. I think you should give yourself ample space now, but here’s why I recommend an open-ended postponement: I was down in the dumps, in an uncharacteristically pessimistic and deflated mood last night. The overwhelming sense of negativity left me feeling exhausted and depleted. I had a scheduled phone call with one of my closest friends, which felt like another task to tick off my to-do list, but once our faces met side-by-side on FaceTime and we were joking about a silly thing that happened in 2013, I felt buoyant again. Never underestimate the power of the “I’m-so-glad-I-did-that-even-though-I-almost-bailed” feeling.
How to reach out to friends when you don’t like FaceTime?
We are in the middle of a correspondence crisis! We used to delineate modes of communication by use case. Now that we use e-mail and phone calls and video chats and text messages for work and for play, for maintaining our every relationship, they’re all mumbled and jumbled and any previous delineation we’ve assigned to these modes feels fairly meaningless. I love an old-fashioned phone call myself, which allows you to walk in mindless circles around your room while your friend prattles on about The Real Housewives or the dream she had last night. I recently accessed a memory I hadn’t recalled in years, of talking to my crush in the sixth grade over my landline (if that doesn’t do much for you, this Vogue story might warm you to the idea).
The other way I recommend checking in with your friends when there’s not much to catch up on and when you don’t like FaceTime: uncover the holy grail of iMessage stickers and send a funny one your friend’s way as a little nugget of levity that doesn’t require much from your friend in return. A handful I recommend: the Unicorn Tapestries, the Rejoinders, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly frights, Medieval Monsters or Medieval Reactions. Nothing says, “I’m thinking of you,” like an albino giraffe painted 500 years ago.
Part 1. How do you stay in touch with friends without getting annoyed by “What’s new?” Because, nothing!
Let’s give ‘em somethinggggg to talk abooooouuuut, Sylvester. If you have roommates or cohabitants, designate one dinner as a themed night, as inspired by illustrator and all-around creative mastermind Lea Carey. She transformed her dining table to replicate Brooklyn’s beloved upscale burger joint Bernie’s, where they have crayons on the table and where my friend Levi once told me Adrian Grenier was sitting near us at the bar but it wasn’t him.
If not, reply to “What’s new?” with a quick “Funny, I was just going to ask you the same.” That should suffice, no?
I’m showing up late to class on Zoom. What’s a good excuse?
“My dog ate my homework” seems plausible now more than ever.
How do you hang up on work calls? Do you just say, “Okay, bye?”
“Hasta la vista, baby!”
How to encourage housemates to use headphones while taking video calls in shared space? And how do I politely tell someone I live with that they need to shower more often?
I find that sometimes, by making things into a joke, you can often reverse-engineer some seriousness and create some tangible change. This is why I recommend a gold-star board for your and your housemates’ achievements during quarantine. Areas to be applauded with a stellar sticker include: frequent showering, inserting their headphone jack into their computer, Swiffering with a smile. Each day that everyone in the same household gets a gold star in a category, you take a five-minute dance break. If you get five gold stars for a certain category over five consecutive days, you get a free pass to skip a shower, drink Cool Whip in your coffee, or work from bed one morning.
Neighbor’s door slamming at 6 a.m. wakes me every day. Do I leave it because these are shit times? Or should I write a note?
I think you should write an uber-polite note and slide it under that noisy door. Your neighbor likely has no idea that this ritual is becoming your unwanted alarm clock, and by kindly pointing it out and asking if there’s some way it might be avoided in the future, they may feel endeared to you and most of all, empathetic.
A set weekly social zoom call feels more mandatory than fun. Can I not attend?
Spontaneity is just as valid a sensation in quarantine as out. Some people find social structure comforting; others find it claustrophobic (I err towards the latter camp myself). I suggest that you opt to join in on a biweekly or monthly cadence and just let your friends know that’s how you plan to engage. No reason necessary—you are free to carve out your available time in the same ways you were under pre-March 2020 circumstances.
Graphic by Beth Sacca.