Beat Zoom burnout: host a conversation salon à la the French Enlightenment

Zoom burnout got you down? Host a French-Enlightenment style conversation salon to shake things up.
Painting of people from the 1700s in a fancy room reading and laying on chairs
Jean François de Troy, “Reading from Molière”

Last Tuesday, on a Zoom call with a friend, we hit a lull in the conversation. She mused, “What did we even talk about before coronavirus?” A few days prior, the same thing happened with my brother. “Should we just talk about cooking now because nothing else happened this week?” he suggested.

By now I’ve attended birthday parties, family dinners and even a baby shower online. I’ve heard of virtual bachelor and bachelorette parties. Heck, some people are even streaming their weddings. Though it’s vital to keep up social connections during this isolating time, I know I’m not the only one who sometimes finds video hangouts, frankly, draining and boring. 

Au revoir, Zoom burnout

There are multiple reasons for virtual hangout fatigue — experts point out that on a video, you have to work harder to understand non-verbal cues, which make up the majority of human communication. Also, because you’re aware you’re on video (and often staring at that tiny frame of yourself) there’s a performative aspect that is tiring as well. Finally, humans find variety in context and location to be healthy. Right now, we’re essentially working, dating, talking to our families and hanging out with our friends all in the same space — on screens in our homes.

So I suggest really shaking things up. Enough of catch-ups where all we do is fan each others’ flames of anxiety about the global pandemic. No more group commiserating that only compounds the bleakness of staying inside our houses for the foreseeable future. And enough of happy hours full of awkward silences because no one actually has anything happy to talk about. Be bold. Host a French Enlightenment-style salon. 

The French salon: more revolutionary discussions, less haircuts

To clarify, I’m not talking about the horrible haircuts you’re giving yourself and your co-isolators right now — the French salons of the 17th and 18th centuries were private gatherings, often hosted by women, to discuss politics, literature and culture. 

Confined in their social interactions by patriarchal norms, Enlightenment-era French women gathered in homes to debate the topics of the time such as religious freedom, personal liberty and the value of science. Through the salon, women encouraged each others’ critical thinking and expression, promoted equality by inviting both aristocrats and the bourgeoisie (middle class) to participate and challenged the idea that birth should make someone noble — Enlightenment ideals that went directly against the royal courts of the time and helped lay the groundwork for the French Revolution. More recently, Gertrude Stein and her wife Alice Toklas were famous for hosting writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso at weekly salons in their Paris home in the 1930s.

In my own socially confined existence, I’ve found placing a moratorium on talking about the coronavirus and focusing on a set topic to be the grounds for some of my most interesting conversations. Book club, for example, is fantastic online. We know what we’ll be discussing in advance and everyone comes prepared with an opinion to share. It’s also a setting that lends itself to taking turns, which helps avoid the inherent “no, you go…you go,” of video chats.

The modern salon: there are no rules

You don’t have to have a group of people to embody salon-style principles of conversation. I have a friend I text almost exclusively about philosophy and activewear (though not usually at the same time). And just last weekend I called up a friend who told me he had listened to a podcast I love to discuss life, suffering and relationships with almost no chit chat about mundane daily stuff or the current news cycle.

There are no rules for this — the goal is simply thoughtful conversation about a topic other than the coronavirus. And if you want to host a gathering, it really doesn’t matter what you discuss: whether low rise jeans come back into fashion (please God no); how on earth the sex scenes in Normal People are SO GOOD; what a perfect album review even means; which flavor of Cheeto is superior and why. It just matters that you have a topic people are excited about. 

I once attended a PowerPoint party (which is basically a salon) where a friend spent half an hour explaining the niche Korean shopping fantasy video game she plays in great detail. And I can attest that enthusiasm begets enthusiasm, practically regardless of topic. Heck, if you do host a virtual salon, you could even get dressed up and really lean into the pomp and circumstance.

There’s never been a better time to host a salon

My friend and I broke out of our Zoom lull last Tuesday by talking about what we were reading. I mentioned I’m working my way through Anna Karenina, the classic Tolstoy love story. I don’t know many people my age who have read it (it’s a 900-plus page commitment), so I practically squealed with excitement when she said it was one of her favorites. 

I asked if we could talk about the book when I was done and she told me she would rewatch the movie and revisit some of her favorite passages to prepare. I said, “This is the type of literary commitment I’m looking for in a friend,” and I’m ecstatic for our upcoming mini-salon. Voilà — coronavirus-free fun.

4 thoughts on “Beat Zoom burnout: host a conversation salon à la the French Enlightenment

  1. I absolutely loved this article and can’t wait to host a “salon” meeting. This is just what I have been looking for, so thank you Sarah for a terrific article and so timely!!!

  2. Meaningful and focused conversations help create deeper connection! Even with strangers. That’s why we launched Connection Feast. We were just in-person events, and pivoted to online super fast one week after stay at home orders. They’ve been a huge success and best of all, build great connection and conversation. I still do my hair though 😉👩‍🦱

    1. Alexandra, thanks so much for sharing this, it sounds so interesting. Feel free to post a link in a comment, or join our Slack community and spread the word there: https://bit.ly/juggle-slack. Incredibly impressed by you doing your hair. My blow dryer and curling iron think I’m dead.

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