What I’ve learned from 300 hours on Zoom

September 9, 2020 — by Audrey Mah

“You don’t know, oh oh/You don’t know you’re beautiful.”

As “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction faded out, I ran up to my desk and plopped down in front of my laptop, sweaty and out of breath. I ended my screen-share of the Just Dance classic, and a dozen similarly sweaty faces beamed back at me from their separate little Zoom boxes. The Just Dance party was a success, and the students happily chattered about their favorite dances.

Due to COVID-19, our world has suddenly grown 10 times more dependent upon technology; it’s our primary means of communication. Apps like Zoom and FaceTime, which replicate face-to-face interaction, have become prominent means through which we spend time with each other.

Still, maintaining relationships that have moved online is tough. Forging new ones in a virtual setting is even tougher.

This summer, I spent a month working for AMP Global Scholar, an international relations-focused summer program for high school students around the world. Part of my job as a mentor was to host social events to help students bond. These events included game nights, talent shows and Just Dance parties. 

All of the students were incredibly warm and friendly. Conversations flowed easily, and everyone was genuinely open to making friends. By the end of the program, the students and staff had become very close and saying goodbye on the last day involved many tears and promises to reunite in person.  

The entire experience astounded me. I had never expected to feel so connected to so many people that I have never even met in person. As I considered how these relationships had developed, I came up with four key ideas that made these bonds possible.

No. 1: showing up. Much like with real-life interactions, making the time to come to an event shows that you care. Most of the social events we held were scheduled for evenings in Eastern Standard Time, which translated to the early hours of the morning for students in Europe and Africa. Nevertheless, international students consistently came to these events, and it resulted in strong friendships.

No. 2:  turning on your camera. That simple switch immediately creates a sense of familiarity and helps others connect with you beyond just your written name. Go a step further by visibly responding to what others say. Smile! React! Even the simplest change in facial expression indicates to others that you are truly listening and present. 

No. 3:  keeping your mic on for the entirety of every meeting if possible. The most awkward aspect of Zoom interactions is the mute feature. It can make any conversation feel stilted or uncomfortable. The act of clicking that little icon at the bottom corner can be daunting, but once you’ve unmuted, the conversation flows much more naturally. (This mic idea doesn’t work well for big groups, but it’s a winner with small groups.)

No. 4 (and most important): embracing the periods of silence. After being stretched across Wi-Fi networks, the stillness is no longer uncomfortable. It becomes a safe place for sound to float in and out, and the most beautiful moments can arise out of that quiet. Once, during a quiet lunch hour, a student suddenly belted out the theme song to the Disney channel show Jessie. No one batted an eye and another girl even joined in.  

Relationships online no doubt take more effort, but as I learned from working in a virtual environment, if you are willing to put in the time and energy, they can be rich and rewarding.


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