Trying to figure out how to have a good Thanksgiving conversation—or avoid a bad one—is as American as apple pie. Of course, this year’s conversations around the Thanksgiving table will often be different precisely because there is no actual table. So how can you improve your Thanksgiving conversations when you’re connecting on a video call?
In a way, tackling Thanksgiving conversations, you’re faced with many of the same challenges that would also confront you during business meetings. Granted, Thanksgiving conversations will lean more on personal topics and building connection than your Monday morning staff meeting. (Although that’s not to say that your business meetings should be totally devoid of fun and connection.)
Here are a few tips to make your online Thanksgiving conversations better:
Big Groups Are Hard For Online Conversations
Even with in-person meetings and working lunches, there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to gathering people around a table. It’s easy for two people to have a conversation. Four to six people is also very manageable. But if it’s 10 or 20 people around the table, conversation tends to bog down. This may be because one person dominates and everyone else feels left out. It may be because the group has just gotten too large and one topic doesn’t seem to captivate everyone. But, both in-person and online, the simple logistics of a big conversation can be overwhelming. This is doubly true online. People are quite adept at making sense of a group conversation when the people are physically right there. However, despite the amazing gains of video conferencing technology, there is still enough of a lag and imperfect A/V overlap to make it hard to make sense of a big group talking. Also, on video conferencing platforms that only show a few people at a time, it can be especially difficult to know who wants to talk or who’s talking because you can’t see everyone’s face at the same time.
Use Structured Conversations At A Virtual Thanksgiving
As groups get larger both in person and online, you benefit from adding at least a pinch of structure versus the conversation being a free-for-all. Going around a table and answering a question or giving a personal update or introduction can feel contrived in person. But having to adapt to an online meeting can push people to add some structure that they wouldn’t otherwise accept in person. Thankfully, one of the few times that people go around a big table and talk in order is the Thanksgiving ritual of noting what one is thankful for. This kind of turn-taking can be extended to other parts of the meal.
Use Breakout Rooms For Better Thanksgiving Conversations
One thing that’s nice about big gatherings of friends and family is the small sidebar moments and little catch-up moments that people are able to do one-on-one or in small groups. The best part of Thanksgiving might not be everyone sitting around a big table having one big conversation (or family argument as the case may be). Instead, it might be a moment to catch up with a sibling, check in on a grandparent, or joke around with the nieces and nephews. Those smaller moments tend to get lost in online meetings. This is even true in office settings where informal connections that might happen before or after a meeting simply don’t happen online. Using breakout rooms is a really nice way to recreate some of these moments. There’s no rule that says a virtual gathering of 20 has to always be 20 people talking at each other for an hour. You could certainly do four or five online breakouts and just keep moving people around so that everyone gets a chance to interact in a more manageable, intimate setting.
Online Conversation Starters For Thanksgiving
A good meeting often results from the preparation that happens before people walk in the door. If it’s a business meeting, one might think of this as setting an agenda or checking in with a speaker to make sure that a presentation is on target. If one transposes this to the virtual Thanksgiving table, it might mean thinking more about what kinds of conversations you want to have—and which ones you don’t. In the absence of guidance or structure, a topic you want to avoid may fill that vacuum. And that need not just be the third rail of politics; it might be the tedium of discussing the weather or listening to your uncle complain about his job.
People are very accustomed to the circular round of giving thanks, but you may also want to have a few other Thanksgiving conversation starters in your back pocket. For example, maybe it’s a question about what people are looking forward to next year. Or maybe it’s a question about one’s earliest Thanksgiving memory. Maybe it’s having the elders at the table share some little-known family history. Or maybe your Thanksgiving conversation starter revolves around an explanation of the dishes on the table and the recipes behind them.
Also, the idea of show and tell works really well with a bunch of people stuck in their own homes. Even giving everyone around the table a chance to share something meaningful—a souvenir from a trip, a medal from running a virtual marathon, or a new puppy—can be a really fun, easy, and personal way to pass the time as a group without it feeling awkward. And any of these conversation starters can inspire other topics.
Leave Them Wanting More
A good meeting has a clear beginning but also a clear end. Bad meetings don’t end with any sort of conclusion, but rather just fade out as people have to take other calls or adjourn with no sense of finality. If you think about this in the context of Thanksgiving, consider having not only a start time, but also an actual end time. In other words, if you just leave the video conferencing open, it may devolve from a really cogent, uplifting family gathering to one that ends with three people incoherently muttering to each other with a football game in the background. It’s better to end too early than to go too long.
Be thankful that you’re spending the time over a delicious meal in the company of people you care about. But, if any of these little tweaks and changes make Thanksgiving better, also think about how they might work when you (virtually) return to the office on Monday morning.