During the initial days of lockdown, conversations became our lifeline. In the absence of normal social interaction, the whole gamut of telecommunications allowed us to check in with everyone and share our experiences. Friends who hadn't spoken in a while reached out to each other, and texting your ex became a well-documented pandemic phenomenon. It also became increasingly difficult to keep track of how many WhatsApp groups you were now expected to take part in.
While being thankful of the technology that enables all of these quarantine colloquies, it's natural that this hyper-communication has also caused weariness. Video calls are widely acknowledged to be physically and emotionally draining - the so-called 'Zoom fatigue' - and, for some people, they're now approaching the stage where it feels like there's nothing left to say and conversations are more like box ticking. Even if our lives weren't wildly exciting before, they provided far more scope for topics to chat about. Now the repertoire has been reduced to what route our new 5km walk might take, what we're eating and how awful our hair is. We have no news and little to talk about that isn't more of the same, although we can also be grateful if one of our largest concerns relates to the next Netflix choice and nothing more sinister. But as Irish people, with our strong oral tradition and purported gift of the gab, this feels like strange territory to find ourselves in.
If conversations can now feel strained, we shouldn't be surprised. Dublin-based psychologist Dr Daragh Keogh observes that a certain amount of the talking that we do when we're together is phatic, or communication that serves a social function rather than an informative one. "We're making noises but really we're communicating that we value being together," he says. "When you're not physically together and touching base by Skype instead for example, which is face-on with direct eye contact and looking at the screen, it's all a little bit more in the spotlight and it might make you more self-conscious. You might realise that what you're saying isn't very substantive, something you're much less aware of when you're talking socially.
"The flip side of this, which might be helpful to remember, is that the people we reach out to talk to these days are people we choose to talk to, because in some way the relationship is important to us. Equally, when someone reaches out to talk to us, it means that in some way they value us. We can never be certain of this in conventional social situations. So there are opportunities nowadays to relax in conversation knowing that what matters most is that we are connecting because we value each other, and that we are not under pressure to amuse or entertain. In a way, we have been evaluated - positively - prior to the call."
According to Dr Keogh, social anxiety can be a factor in why chats aren't flowing and why we feel awkward. "When groups of people meet, many of us remain quietly in the background, participating but not in a centre stage kind of way and not contributing and that gets masked by the fact that certain people step forward and hold the stage," he says. "Some of us are more socially anxious. And for those of us who are, direct one-to-one conversations might be challenging. Again, if we can remind ourselves that we are talking to someone because we value the relationship, and that they are talking to us for the same reason, these times can be an opportunity to become more socially confident."
There is also the aspect that our life projects - what we do and what we pursue - can be pillars of our self-identity, and, if we don't have these things to talk about, we might feel conversationally at sea. "The more secure we are about who we are, then we're not maybe rocked by the fact that we don't have witty stories or cool activities to relay," the psychologist explains. "But the more insecure I am emotionally about what my worth is and how I might be seen by others, the more vulnerable I might feel if I don't have a narrative of achievement or activity to share. Again, it's important to remember that if the relationship is important, it's important because of who I am, not what I've done today."
Writer Anna Carey, author of several novels for young adults, thinks that we haven't necessarily run out of things to say but that the current uniformity of our collective experiences makes conversing more of a challenge. "If you're lucky enough to have a stable home and you're not in an abusive or dangerous situation, most people who have kids in the house have situations that are fairly similar; people who don't have kids in the house, their situations are fairly similar," she says. She notes that there is something about a group Zoom that leads to slightly drifty conversation, and believes that the reason for this is because video calls are unnatural for us. "I don't think anybody should feel bad about finding it weird, because it just is. It would be stranger if we all thought it was exactly the same as sitting around a table with a bottle of wine, because it isn't," she says. "It's better than nothing but there's something uncanny about it and I think some part of our brain obviously knows that and that's why it's so tiring because we're trying to compensate somehow for the peculiar kind of jarring elements of the whole thing. All the cues that would trigger a normal conversation and the craic are gone so it makes sense that people find it difficult after a certain point - and again, what are we going to talk about?"
One way that she and her family have found to circumnavigate any potential conversational lulls is to introduce an activity to their group chats, most recently charades. "There were six households and we divided into two teams of three each and we used an app to give us ideas - it was really good fun. It gets rid of the awkwardness and you've something to do."
It might not be possible to become skilled conversationalists during lockdown or to even raise our game above chatting about mundane matters. But we can still appreciate how the tenor of our communications has altered, arguably for the better. Valerie O'Reilly, managing director of Unicorn PR and Communications, believes that how people communicate now versus pre Covid-19 has fundamentally changed. "Social pressure has eased, expectations have dropped, and recognition of our vulnerability has allowed conversations to be a lot more honest and open," she says. "Everyone had a particular social front that they were keen to present, mainly in relation to material aspects of our life. It brings us back to the fundamentals - our mental and physical health, our relationships, our families, our jobs and our homes."
How we communicate with one another has changed overnight. If you find yourself lost for words these topics should get the conversation flowing again.
The new normal
We might be sick of talking about Covid-19 but it’s impossible to ignore. Ask about people’s new routines and how they segue from office-mode to chilling out now that they’re working from home. If video chats feel strange, draw attention to the fact that this is how we’re now communicating by asking what their usual video chat attire is, and are they just dressing from the waist up.
Find out what people are watching, reading and listening to, and why. You’ll probably pick up some interesting pointers and these are areas that people feel comfortable talking about.
Whet the appetite
What are people are cooking and do they have any amazing recipes? How has their diet changed since lockdown? There can be immense comfort in discussing the tyranny of producing three meals a day.