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10 Zoom-Free Ways to Nurture Friendships During the Pandemic

From masked walks to jigsaw puzzle drop-offs, a little creativity can help people stay connected

By Janet Siroto

Don't get me wrong: Zoom is great. It's a gift. It connects us and shows us the faces of our dear friends and family members when we can't be sitting together.

However, the Zoom fatigue is real. Many of us are exhausted by the ritual of sitting in front of a screen, looking relatively camera-ready (raise your hand if you bought a ring light) and having an artfully arranged backdrop behind us.

Two friends walking wearing face masks, friendship, Zoom fatigue, Next Avenue
Credit: Getty

And when the call is over, that bonded feeling fades, and fast.

"Humans are wired to be connected with others," says Margaret Wehrenberg, a Naperville, Ill. therapist and author of the new e-book, "Pandemic Anxiety; Fear, Stress and Loss in Traumatic Times."

"The in-person connection shares so much more; we are hugged, touched, truly seen. Oxytocin – the bonding or 'cuddle' hormone – is released, making us feel safe and comfortable," she says. "It's hard to get that on Zoom."

Many of us are exhausted by the ritual of sitting in front of a screen, looking relatively camera-ready...

Indeed, on video calls, our brains have to work overtime to interpret language nd facial expressions and to deal with any time lags, which gets exhausting. Boomers, who may be less adept at parsing this imagery than young people weaned on video apps, can feel this especially deeply. And the monotony of sitting at our station – scrambling for something to chat about while we all live largely interior lives – devolves into a monotonous challenge.

But abandoning efforts to connect is not the answer.

"Feeling supported by others is important for psychological and physical health. When we face uncertainty, as we do now, family and friends calm us down, inspire strength and generally help us right the ship," says Andrew A. Abeyta, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. "One perspective in psychology is to think of social belonging as similar to hunger. While direct, in-person social interaction is a 'social meal' – a powerful, lasting way to satiate your hunger – 'social snacks,' or indirect social interactions, can make us feel at ease for a time, too."

10 Ways to Connect Without Zoom

So with that principle in mind, here are 10 creative ways to feel connected to your crew, no Zoom required. Try mixing them into your routine until the pandemic is over.

1. Synchronized Netflixing

First, my own obsession: Simultaneously watching a good, gripping streaming series while texting with a friend. It's almost like sitting next to a pal at the movies, minus the popcorn and sticky floor underfoot.

One of my favorite experiences was watching the HBO whodunit "The Undoing" with Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman, bantering back and forth about plot holes, likely suspects, luxurious sets and glamorous costumes. Sure, my friend and I could have dissected it after the fact, but there is something incredibly bonding and gossipy about doing so in real time.

2. Soup's On

"I enjoy cooking but heard many friends complaining about being shut inside and having to make food for their families all the time. So now we share dishes when we can. I'll call friends and say, 'I'm making a big pot of Italian sausage soup today; can I drop some off for your dinner tonight?' It's become an exchange. And given how cooped up we all are, I like that I get to go for a drive and wave at my friends as I bring the dish to the doorstep." – Margaret Wehrenberg

3. A Puzzling Tradition

"Where I live, we have many ways of staying connected, but I especially like the jigsaw puzzle exchanges that have been big around here. When you finish a puzzle, you put it back in the box and leave it on your porch for friends to swap out with one they have done. A nice way to share the fun with neighbors." – Reggie Holder, director of Growing Ministries, Highlands United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Ala.

"When you finish a puzzle, you put it back in the box and leave it on your front porch for friends to swap out with one they have done."

4. Talking While Walking

"Before the pandemic, I was a gym bunny. When locations began closing down, I started walking with two friends. We're women of a certain age, and we meet at least once a week, logging five to seven miles, sharing out thoughts and solving the problems of the world. Life, loves, our children and grandchildren and the issues of the day are all discussed. I believe deep down many of us are grateful for the opportunity we now have to stop, to think about what matters to us, what doesn't – and what to take into the future and what to leave behind." – Elizabeth White, author of "55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life" and an aging-solutions advocate, Washington D.C.

5. A Food-Lover's Adventure

"Since getting together indoors with friends isn't safe right now, I like to meet friends in Washington Square Park [in New York City's Greenwich Village] and take them on a food tour. We go to all my favorite old-school places: a Japanese market, a Greek pastry shop and the Italian pasta shop with the best ravioli (I love the spinach and cheese). Maybe we'll get a coffee (yup, I have a favorite coffee place also!) and walk around as we catch up. That evening, I'll text them, for example, my favorite brown-butter sauce for pasta, and we'll make the same meal, each in our own homes. It's a fun way for them to try something new and for me to share (and support!) my beloved neighborhood businesses. We may not be dining together, but it keeps us connected." – Elisa Casas, vintage jewelry dealer, New York City


6. Tee Off

"Weather permitting, golf has been a fantastic escape. Beyond my existing love of the sport, it's allowed for quasi-normalcy at a time that virtually nothing else was remotely normal. I was able to spend time with friends and family – and actually meet new people while playing, outdoors and at a safe social distance. It's also been a safe escape from the routine of being stuck at home. The only downside was that there was such a crush of people who jumped into golf due to the pandemic that tee times were frequently hard to get on the most desirable courses." -- Geoff Reiss, general manager of a digital sports platform, Westchester, N.Y.

7. Gather a Pupper Pack

"I adore Amber, my thirteen-pound Yorkie mix, and one of my favorite activities is keeping up with what we call our 'tiny pack' – her group of equally little canine friends…she may be the biggest. We owners text a time and meet in the woods and, all masked, walk distantly with our dogs. Sometimes there are four of us, other times eight. We go for an hour or so. It's a great mix of conversation and exercise – for us and the dogs!" – Maria Ricapito, writer, Philipstown, N.Y.

"We've all agreed that if there's one good thing to come out of this whole rotten experience, it's that we've grown closer."

8. Deal Me In

"My three former college roommates and I play virtual card games every Monday night. We loved ending our days with Hearts or Spades at the dorm, and now we're continuing the tradition all these years later. When the pandemic put us on lockdown, it cancelled our annual girls' spring getaway, so we've met weekly for over nine months for our games! We play virtually via Trickster, which has a chat function. We've all agreed that if there's one good thing to come out of this whole rotten experience, it's that we've grown closer. We've really needed each other during this COVID-19 crisis and are more in touch throughout the week – not just on Mondays – thanks to the ripple effect of our card games." – Mindy Bianca, owner of a travel-focused PR agency, York, Pa.

9. A Roving Book Club

"I go through my overloaded bookshelves from time to time and send a favorite volume to a friend. I don't warn them that it's coming, but I stick a note inside to call me when they're done and tell me their favorite moment or the best thing they learned from it. It's a good way for me to purge my personal library as I think about downsizing in the next year or two; it jogs my memory about favorite books I've read and it keeps me in touch with far-flung friends. Not bad for the price of postage." – Steve T., teacher, San Francisco Bay area, Calif.

10. Go Big While Staying Home

"This is a bit offbeat as it doesn't exactly involve connecting with a specific other person, but I have several webcams from around the world that I check on a regular basis. They bring me the beauty of each location, happy memories of past visits (like to the Spanish seaside town I visited two summers ago) and hope for the time when we eventually can travel again. They give me a feeling of connection to a wider world out there, a bit of perspective beyond my apartment, hometown and the U.S. And they give me something to share with friends when we talk, which is nice since our lives have become smaller and more predictable." – Barbara, a communications executive in New York City.

Janet Siroto is an NYC-based journalist and content strategist who specializes in lifestyle, wellness and consumer-trend topics, as well as personal essays. Read More
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