Building friendships over Zoom

Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - 3:40pm

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Illustration by Hibah Mirza

I don’t have to be the one to tell you that we are living in very strange times. Many of us (myself included) had plans to work or intern at a resume-deserving company as a way to gain coveted “real-world experience.” Instead, a lot of us students are at home with our parents, unsure if we will be going back to school in the fall. We are missing our friends that we left behind in Ann Arbor and are unable to see our friends from home in person. The feeling of longing is only slightly alleviated by our ability to talk to each other through programs like Zoom and FaceTime. While some may only see these platforms as a form of instant gratification,  my experience with online socialization has been the silver lining to quarantine. 

Before leaving Ann Arbor, I started to hang out with a relatively new assortment of friends.  This group is made up entirely of people from my Pre-Law Fraternity, Kappa Alpha Pi, consisting of smaller subsets of friends that were never together as a collective until our final days in Ann Arbor. Since then, these people have already become some of my closest friends, with our new relationships developing exclusively over Zoom. This phenomenon harkens back to my days of having online friends that I knew only through our interactions on Xbox Live. The difference is, now I’ll  get to see my new group of friends when things return back to relative normalcy. 

These friendships have developed more rapidly than any other I have had in my life. When I first got to Michigan I did not know anybody. There was nobody from my area going, and it felt like I had to fully restart the process of making friends. It took almost the entire first semester of my freshman year to feel like I had people I could talk to and trust. That same process was expedited during quarantine, taking only weeks over video chat. 

There was a night a few weeks ago when my friends from home, whom I have known since I was 15, and my new friends, whom I have known for around two months, were independently having Zoom poker nights. Without a second thought, I chose to play with people from college. After the call was over, I began to reflect on why I had chosen to play with this new group as opposed to the older one. It seems like after only a few weeks of talking I already felt more connected to some of these people than I do to friends I have known for years.

Why was I choosing to hang out with these people over my oldest friends? Well, it’s kind of simple: I like hanging out with them. It’s not that I don’t like talking with my friends from high school— in fact, I love to. But my new friends had been video chatting almost every day since the quarantine began and have been growing closer with each call. I wanted to keep the momentum rolling and not miss out on time building these friendships. I felt like I was a solid part of my high school friend group, but missing time with these new friends would stunt the growth of those bonds.  I also know for certain that prior to this quarantine I have never in my life hung out with someone, let alone a group of people, every night for a month. 

It has never been this easy. There is no need to pick a time that works for everyone since we are free at all hours, and no need to organize one place since all you need is a Zoom invite link. This situation is perfect for building new friendships. Everyone is starved for social interaction, and we are missing out on more than might be obvious at first glance. We aren’t chatting before class starts with people in our section or making small talk with the barista at Espresso Royale. These little interactions throughout the day now have to be condensed into one large exchange, and Zoom calls serve as that replacement. Isolation allows us to solidify friendships in a way we could not before, as now the amount of interaction necessary to build these bonds can be achieved in a smaller window of time. 

I think about it like physics: The frequency (amount of times someone interacts) of the wave (friendship) has increased, while the wavelength (the time period these interactions take place over) has decreased. Although I’ve known them for a smaller total time than my friendships from home, the increased frequency makes it as if the same sum of time spent together is the same. To continue with this analogy, the final r piece of the puzzle is the amplitude — seen as the perceived depth of conversation — of this wave.

My new relationships aren’t just surface level. No one has anything going on, so conversation can’t solely center around personal anecdotes of each day. After the first week of chatting, we all ran out of our back catalog of stories that we had saved for new interactions. We got to cut through the fat and get to the meat quicker than would have ever been possible in person.

We talk about everything. From family life back at home to old relationships and plans for the future, we are getting into the conversations usually reserved for lifelong friends after just a few weeks. Weirdly enough, the barrier of the screen almost serves as a catalyst to open people up to say what they want to say. In person, it can be intimidating or awkward to spill your heart out for people because you have to look them in the eye while doing it. But over Zoom, it feels like talking to a mirror with a different face. I have found myself to be much more willing to open up and talk about things that I usually wouldn’t. This could be a symptom of the times and the uncertainty around them, but I find it more likely that it is simply because of this lack of awkwardness mentioned before.  I assume the same is true for the other people in the group. If not, then they are very open people in their everyday lives — even in person —  and I envy that confidence. I digress. 

I would be lying if I said it didn’t feel a bit weird to be overanalyzing my group of friends like this, but I do think it’s essential to take a step back and think about how we ended up with our social groups. 

Were you forced into it by chance? Do all your friends share a common core interest? Why do you associate with the people that you associate with? 

For me, this group formed purely by accident. My friend invited me to hang out, I got added to a group chat that then splintered off into a smaller group chat, and I am now telling these people my life’s ambitions and hearing theirs. Life comes at you fast sometimes.

My friendship with Stav Dvir, one of the group members of whom I have grown closest to, is the perfect example.  Stav and I were already friends before this, having known each other for a month or two. He was the one who added me to the aforementioned group chat that evolved into the Zoom regulars. We were still pretty much surface-level friends at that point. Even with this baseline, just two weeks after quarantine began there was (and still is) almost no one I know that I trust more than Stav. Because of virtual interaction, he has quickly become one of my closest friends, and I am so grateful for it.

When I asked Stav for permission to use him as an example, he echoed this sentiment. He said that he “never would have thought (he and I) could have gotten as close as we did so quickly, but was glad that we did.” This “distance socializing” has been effective for me and Stav, as it has not only served to expand our social circles, but also to strengthen the ties that were already there.

This situation is tough for everyone. We aren’t sure of our futures, and some people have had theirs stripped away from them. By looking for silver linings, we are not necessarily discounting this underlying truth. It may sound privileged, but I believe that if we don’t try to find the good in the overwhelming bad, we might as well give up. I recognize that there are healthcare workers and essential workers who don’t have time to consider the implications of quarantine on their social lives. Instead, they have to worry about keeping people healthy and society afloat. Nevertheless, mental health is essential. Humans are social beings, and we need interaction to stay level headed. My new group of friends is doing just that for me, and I hope I can play a role in doing that for them. 

In many of our nightly Zoom calls, we have discussed how excited we are to get back to campus. A lot of things cause a yearning to get back to Ann Arbor, but for me it is that I will finally get to be with my friends in person. I have a new social group to look forward to going out with, watching movies with, playing board games with. My new friend group makes for a bright light at the end of a tunnel of unknown length. Without this to look forward to, quarantine would not have been nearly as manageable.