How To Talk About Literally Anything Else

A couple smiles and waves at the camera on their laptop.
A couple smiles and waves at the camera on their laptop.
Photo: AleksandarGeorgiev/E+/Getty Images

TThere’s a spontaneity to social life in quarantine. Just a few weeks ago, before the coronavirus forced us all inside, trying to pin down a dinner with friends could sometimes feel like playing Tetris — and everyone involved knew it would be rescheduled at least twice anyway. But now, hunkered down at home, calling a friend on a whim feels normal.

There’s just one hitch: Whenever I get a friend on the line these days, the first question is nearly always, “How are you holding up?” Or, “How is quarantine treating you?” Or, “You guys ready to kill each other yet?”

Look, these are completely reasonable icebreakers right now. But they’re also exhausting. Anyone asking already knows the answer: None of us are doing amazingly well. Quarantine is not summer camp. Most of us would love to see someone beyond our partners, parents, or children.

On the one hand, now feels like an especially vital time to let the people in our lives know we’re there for them. On the other hand, as anxiety disorder specialist Catherine Belling recently explained in Time, excessively rehashing our quarantine situations and the news will only make us feel worse. “There’s no correlation between how worried you are and how at risk you are,” she said.

So, how can you stay social without triggering more anxiety? “Friendships are long-standing, reliable relationships that are positive and include cooperation and reciprocity,” says Lydia Denworth, author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond. “So, think about what you can do to make your friends feel good (that’s the positive part) and how to show up for them from a distance (the reciprocity part). Tell them they matter to you and that you miss them.” And ask them simple, intentional questions to keep the conversation focused on things that make you both feel good during a time when feeling good is a welcome change.

Below is a list of suggestions to help you uplift, distract, and maintain some semblance of normalcy.

Concerning recent times

  • What’s something that made you smile this week?
  • What’s something that made you laugh this week?
  • What are you feeling grateful for?
  • What was the highlight of your day or week?
  • What was the last thing you bought online?
  • What have you been watching recently?
  • Have you read any good books or articles?
  • What’s your favorite podcast right now?
  • What have you been enjoying about working from home?
  • What have you been cooking?
  • Have you ordered out from any good restaurants lately?
  • What are you most proud of right now?
  • What is making you feel most productive right now?
  • What is making you feel most at peace right now?
  • Have you found any fun ways to be creative?
  • What’s the most absurd thing you’ve seen on social media recently?
  • Where are you finding a sense of purpose right now?
  • What hobbies are you leaning into?
  • What are you doing to relax?

Concerning emotional support

  • What can I do to support you right now?
  • What is making you feel better?
  • When you think about next year, what makes you the most excited?
  • When have you felt the most supported in the past week or so?
  • When have you felt most hopeful in the past week or so?

Concerning life and relationships at large

  • What’s your first memory of me?
  • What’s your favorite memory of us together?
  • How did you meet your best friend or other best friends?
  • What’s an uncommon belief you hold? (Alternatively: What are your hot takes?)
  • What would you do if you won the lottery right now?
  • What are some areas you want to improve on in your romantic relationship or your relationships with family?
  • Any important goals for the next year?
  • What’s something you’d like to learn more about?
  • What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned in the past few months?
  • How do you define trust? What do you do to show trust in relationships?
  • What’s something I don’t already know about you?
  • What are your hidden talents?
  • What are you an expert on that other people might not know about?
  • What do you consider your biggest life accomplishment?
  • What’s your favorite childhood memory?
  • What person had the biggest positive impact on you as a child, and why?
  • Who do you really look up to, and why?

If you’re talking to someone you’re really close with, create space to be lighthearted together. Silliness feels like a relic from another time, but it’s still an option right now.

  • If you could time travel, what time would you visit?
  • If you could invent anything, what would it be?
  • What’s your comfort food?
  • Do you believe in ghosts?
  • Who would you want to play you in a movie?
  • What’s your go-to karaoke song?
  • What’s the story behind your name?
  • If you could have any pet right now, what would it be?

Of course, if you don’t know what to ask, don’t ask anything. Sometimes people want to listen or hear things that bring them comfort. Here are some comments that can help.

  • I love you.
  • I miss you.
  • We’ll get through this together.
  • I’m here for you.
  • I was thinking about you recently when I saw/read…
  • I’d love to tell you about my day.
  • You look beautiful today.
  • I’m grateful to be able to talk to you.
  • Let me tell you about this amazing show I’m watching/podcast I’m listening to/book I’m reading…
  • Let me tell you about this amazing recipe I made…
  • Remember that time when we…
  • When this all ends, I can’t wait to do… with you.
  • Something that made me smile recently is…
  • I’m really happy to have… in my life right now.

This is just a starting point. You know your loved ones best. Say whatever you think would be the most effective way to let them know that you see them, love them, and are here to have meaningful conversations about what they’re going through. Sometimes that’s going to mean talking about their coronavirus fears and anxieties. But all of our lives are bigger than this pandemic, and it can feel like a gift to be able to talk about anything else.

Investor at NextView Ventures. Journalist. Thinking about gender, equality, and pugs. Formerly at Chief, Quartz, Slow, Bridgewater Associates, Middlebury.

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