After the coronavirus pandemic began, telecommunications giants like AT&T and Verizon reported huge increases in the number and length of voice-to-voice calls. Despite the Zoom boom, people are turning to good old spoken conversation for connection and comfort.
I certainly make a lot more social phone calls than I used to — and I’ve found that I like to go walking while talking. See that guy yammering away while wandering neighborhood sidewalks and walking endless laps around the local school track? That’s me.
Unfortunately, pandemic catch-up conversations can run out of juice and go dark quickly. What’s new with you? Boredom. Loneliness. Anxiety. Loss of income. And you?
While it’s important to be real with one another about how we’re holding up, what if you just can’t stand another pity party?
Here are suggestions for keeping it fun on the phone: word games, conversation prompts, interview questions and more. Most are phone-only, so you can walk while you talk if you wish. But we’ll also include some reviews of recent Zoom game sessions I tried. It’s all aimed at helping you share smiles — yes, even remote ones — with people you miss.
• Twenty Questions. Just because it’s a childhood classic doesn’t mean adults can’t play too. One person secretly chooses a person, place or thing. (Something straightforward. It’s no fair to pick “purpleness” or “capitalism.”) Others have 20 questions to zero in. Yes, your guess at the thing itself (“Is it an antelope?”) counts as a question, so be judicious.
• Famous Person is a variation that comedy improviser and actor K.C. Cooper of Magenta Theater used to play on car trips, she said. Is this person alive? Is this person American? Is this person, um, still in office?
• Two Truths and a Lie. An ice-breaking party game. Try to catch the lie out of three statements, like: “My favorite food is pho. My dog’s name is Barky Bark. I have never been to Iceland.” With a little thought your clues can get tantalizingly tricky.
Comedy improvisers often loosen up their brains and get in sync by playing easy imagination games. No results are too silly. The point here is simply to connect and laugh.
• I Like Clams. Why? For utterly ridiculous reasons only: “I like clams because they’re excellent dancers.” “I like clams because they seek social justice.” “I like clams because they fixed my flat tire.”
• Add-a-Word Story. Each person takes a turn adding one word to a lengthening tale. Good for any number of participants. Example: “Today.” “I.” “Saw.” “A.” “Crocodile.” “Slithering.” “Along.” “Wearing.” “A.” “Cute.” “Red.” “Hat.” That sounds like a complete sentence, so start a new one. What did that red-topped croc do next?
• Add-a-Word Proverb is a variation on the above except you’re not creating a story, you’re generating wisdom. “She.” “Who.” “Eats.” “Dynamite.” “Will.” “Explode!”
• Big Fat Sentence. Each participant adds a short phrase to a lengthening sentence. A great memory exercise. “I see a green car.” “I see a green car with wicked wheels.” “I see a green car with wicked wheels and a body in the trunk.” “I see a green car with wicked wheels and a body in the trunk driving in the Hazel Dell Parade!” How long can you keep this going?
There’s no shortage of wordy improv games to be found online. Try www.improvencyclopedia.org and click on “warm ups.”
What are you really like? What could be a more fascinating topic of conversation?
When he was a teenager in the 1880s, French novelist-to-be Marcel Proust answered the same kind of personality quiz that remains all the rage among adolescents today. The particular parlor game he played became famous as the Proust Questionnaire, a favorite exercise among writers, actors and other character builders. Drama and English teacher Sara Rideout of La Center High School said her students love exploring their insides with these thought-provoking questions.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? Or misery? Who is your hero? What talent do you wish you had? When do you lie? If you come back after death, what would you like to be?
The Proust Questionnaire is nothing fancy. It’s just meant to spark some insights and meaningful conversation. An extended, 35-item version is posted at thewritepractice.com/proust-questionnaire.
Or just make up your own questions. What’s the title of the biopic version of your life, and who plays the starring role? What three things make you instantly happy? Who’s on your ultimate dinner party list? If you had a space-and-time machine, where and when would you go? If you had $1 million, how would you spend it?
In any conversation, asking questions means you are actively listening, not just waiting for your turn to blab. (Never begin your side of a conversation with, “But anyway.”) Questions demonstrate that you’re engaged and curious. Questions show you care and want to get closer. That’s something we all need this winter.
Honor your elder relatives by interviewing them about their lives. Now’s your chance to ask what you’ve always wanted to know: What are your earliest memories? What was life like when you were a child? Who were your relatives? What was your wedding like? How did spend your days? What has been easiest and hardest? How do you want to be remembered?
Say what you see
Intentionally slowing down might seem an odd goal during this crawling-along time. But there’s never been a better time to appreciate the natural world — birds and trees, sun and rain, planets and stars. Try trading details about what you see: the little mysteries, the beauty of it all.
We may be all Zoomed out, but many will undoubtedly reZoom over the holidays to renew some feeling of togetherness. Many of the above games and ideas translate easily to videoconferencing.
My 20-something son and his friends who have scattered from Vancouver now reunite for a monthly Dungeons & Dragons session that relies on paper and pencil. Other than the Zoom link itself, the only electronics involved are an online dice roller.
“We are tech-friendly millennials, but we really just want to hang out together,” he told me.
Magenta actor and improviser Tony Provenzola said his family still does traditional board game nights over Zoom, keeping remote boards in sync as they play “Settlers of Catan” or “Carcassonne.”
Over Thanksgiving, my Zoom-handy wife hosted a live games session with extended family. A lot of laughter made up for the little bit of organizational awkwardness as everyone counted off and jotted down their number. Those numbers kept us in sequence (mostly) for several hilarious rounds of Add-A-Word Story. (That’s where the above crocodile-with-hat was born.) Then our hostess divided us into teams in separate “breakout rooms” for word games and household scavenger hunts. (The first order of business, however, was to promote spirit with team names: the Corona Crusaders versus the Rolling Gallstones.)
A few weeks later we joined a more app-intensive Zoom game night. One player managed the software, a package of games from Jackbox.tv, and shared his screen with eight more of us. We used individual cell phones to type in access codes and participate in play.
Drawing pictures, typing slogans and voting for favorites was easy and fun. Answering trivia questions while exploring a haunted mansion and avoiding becoming a ghost was more complicated and faster-paced. Detecting alien invaders in our group of astronauts through off-the-wall questions and tasks was a complicated deduction puzzle — a little like Clue in Space.
The ideas and graphics were clever and impressive, but the stream got a bit glitchy. Before long it seemed to me that the main attraction was the app itself, not interaction among players. Still, it was lovely seeing people, and I’ll definitely do it again. There’s a learning curve to online app-based games, and I’m clearly still at the bottom.
When it was all over, I went outside and made a phone call.