Parking Lot Conversations

I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what I’m missing since the world shut down last spring.  Except for a few days wondering about toilet paper supplies, all my basic needs have been met.  Most of my nonprofit clients are operational, and I can work via email and phone.  So, why then, do I still fell so isolated? 

I am not particularly extroverted, so being alone is not such a terrible thing.  My kitchen is not a horrible place to be.  I can even be home to pop a roast in the crock pot some days.  Not a bad gig, right? 

Then a very smart friend of mine helped me understand:  I am missing my parking lot conversations.

Let me back up a second. 

I was recently working with a nonprofit that provides, as part of its mission, support groups for people living with certain medical conditions.  As part of their due diligence, the staff survey their clients to find out how well the nonprofit’s services are received. 

Overall, the marks were high, per usual.  But the program director noted the area that scored lowest was the response to the statement, “I feel supported by others in the group.” 

“This,” she explained to me, “is likely due to the lack of one-to-one personal interactions that normally happen outside the meeting itself.”  These are the sidebars or follow-up conversations that occur just before or just after the main meeting.  You might speak in the hallway or on the way to your car as you leave.  This is when one person comments to another, “I am so sorry you are dealing with that drug side effect, I had that problem, too.”  These are the stories you share–about your child’s high school graduation, or your father’s illness, or your new puppy’s antics—that add a touch of personality, a bit of humanity, to your understanding of your fellow humans. 

When the Zoom session is over, everyone logs off.  There is no gathering outside the meeting room or stopping in the parking lot before you get in your car.  There is no built-in, usually serendipitous, sometimes intentional, one-to-one interaction.

Similarly, now that we are all working from home, we don’t have water-cooler conversations or waiting-for-the printer-to-get-to-our-job interfaces in the copy room.  We don’t eat lunch together or run into each other in the breakroom over Sally’s mother’s banana bread.  I no longer know that John’s wife has morning sickness or that Josie’s mother had knee replacement surgery.   Granted, I don’t really NEED to know these things to do my job, but I LIKE knowing these things.  It helps me better understand John and Josie as human beings and not just creatures I work with. 

For me, these sidebar conversations make my interactions with clients, coworkers, ANYONE more real, more human, and more three-dimensional than Zoom.  Yes virtual meetings are productive and eliminate travel time and expenditures.  And they may very well be here to stay.  But I hope we don’t completely eliminate those all-important, informal, get-to-know-each-other moments. 

I mean, who’s planning the office baby shower for John and his wife? 

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