The Rules for Having Lunch Over Zoom

I was Zoom-lunching before Zoom lunches were the only way we could lunch. These are my rules.

Photo: Westend61/Getty

SSocial distancing doesn’t mean you can’t be distantly social. It doesn’t mean that you can’t connect with people or that you can’t be closer than you were before this, even with people you’re not stuck in the same house with.

In fact, our mental health depends on staying in touch with other humans. We are gregarious animals. This is why I’ve been having at least one virtual meal a day with a friend, colleague, cousin, or random business contact. It’s a powerful way to attempt something normal at a time when nothing is normal.

And oddly, in these times when every emotion is heightened, the connection feels more personal than it would be if you were face to face in the Before Corona world.

By coincidence, I have a ton of experience with touch-free friendships. About five years ago, I started a tradition of Skype lunches. I ordered lunch, my friend or business associate ordered lunch, and we ate that lunch together while chatting over Skype. Since then, I’ve done hundreds of Skype lunches or variations on the theme (Zoom dinners, Google Hangout coffees, etc.).

I started the ritual because I work alone from my New York apartment, and I found it incredibly inefficient to schlep to Midtown or Brooklyn. An hour lunch cost me at least two hours in subway, walking, and elevator time.

When I’d pitch a Zoom lunch to friends, I’d sometimes get pushback. They’d be insulted: “I’m not important enough to meet in person?” Yes, there are drawbacks. You don’t get the restaurant ambiance or people watching. You can’t hug (which is so 2019) or inhale pheromones.

But virtual lunches also have tons of advantages. Over the years, I’ve saved an enormous amount of time. No waiting for the check. No one can eavesdrop when you say something moronic. And now, of course, there’s another not-so-small advantage: Your safety and that of everyone else in the world.

With my years of experience, I have assembled a handful of tips to make the best of virtual lunches.

Choose Zoom

Five years ago, I did most of my lunches on Skype. Since then, I’ve dined over several other platforms, but I’ve settled on Zoom as the smoothest experience — the least amount of lags, dropped calls, and herky-jerky video. Plus, I like the formality of a Zoom invitation. (A note on scheduling: If it’s a friend you like and want to see again, I find it helpful to schedule the next lunch while still on the call.) As for tech, I use a laptop and prefer the regular speakers to headphones for a more natural feel.

Wear clothes

This may seem obvious, but I once had a lunch date with a shirtless guy. Not only that, but he boasted yeti-worthy torso hair. I know there are communities that find this appealing, and more power to them, but it’s not my taste.

I try to remember: Be as presentable as you would at a lunch at the local French bistro. If you really want to save time on getting dressed, you can always go pantsless and remember not to stand up.

Eat and drink

Treat it like an actual meal, not a casual FaceTime chat. There’s something about the actual act of consuming food or beverages that makes the ritual more meaningful and structured.

The food itself doesn’t matter. I usually have salad and coffee ordered in, but I’ve also made pasta and cereal (not together). Friends have had smoothies and tea. Plus there’s always the classic joke at the end where you pretend to ask for the check. Never not funny!

Skip the small talk

There’s something about a Zoom lunch that makes the conversation more efficient and interesting. Maybe it’s because you don’t feel obliged to talk about the traffic or the humidity on the way over. I often make a list of three or four topics I want to cover, and I jump right in.

Work around time zones

I’ve had a Zoom lunch in New York while my California friend had breakfast or my friend in London had dinner. There’s always an appropriate meal, no matter what time of day.

Go to a virtual restaurant

I once had a virtual lunch with a tech-savvy guy who somehow changed the background on our video chat. He substituted our apartment walls for a photo of a French café, complete with linoleum floor, dark wood chairs, and white tablecloths. It was a delight (even if I was eating a hummus bagel, which is culturally confusing). I’m not digitally literate enough to do this, but I found a YouTube tutorial that might help those who want to try.

Ask for a tour

Though you won’t get to see the inside of a restaurant, the upside is that you often get a peek at people’s houses or workplaces. It’s fascinating.

I usually ask my meal partner to pan around or take me on a short walk through their space before we start eating. I’ve experienced a hipster London warehouse/café, a lab that is making clean meat, and the inside of a Slovakian apartment. While you’re confined to your home for the foreseeable future, a Zoom lunch can be a way to see the world outside.

A.J. Jacobs is an author, journalist, lecturer and human guinea pig. He has written four New York Times bestsellers. Learn more:

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