How to Meet New People, Even at a Distance

Online and offline platforms are helping strangers form social connections, which are crucial for our health, especially in a pandemic.

A retired teacher, a Midwestern minister and a mother of two teenagers all dial into a Zoom room. For the next 90 minutes, they do something their typical adult lives don’t usually afford them a chance to do: listen to others’ perspectives, and have others listen to them. And after three rounds of answering not-so-standard questions, like “What sense of purpose guides you in your life?”, the group leaves the room, feeling deeply connected.

Or so goes the logic of “Living Room Conversations” — an online platform through which volunteer hosts help small groups of people discuss timely topics such as voting, gun rights and their vision for America. Founded in 2010 by two women on differing sides of the political spectrum, with the input of dialogue experts, Living Room Conversations have sought to show how people could have civil conservations across lines of difference. At one point, these discussions, which have always been free to join, happened in actual living rooms. But when the coronavirus mandated a strict lockdown, the conversations went online-only, and became a means for alleviating loneliness, too.

With many offices, gyms, churches and other places where people normally connect shut down, Living Room Conversations is one of several social platforms currently experiencing a surge of new interest. Since mid-March, more than 1,000 people have signed up for the discussions, and the website has had 62 percent more page views than it had at the same time last year. Joan Blades, one of the platform’s co-founders, attributes the traffic spike to social isolation.

“It’s a way of taking care of people,” Ms. Blades said. “Maybe you’re signing up for these conversations because you’re lonely, or maybe you’re hosting a conversation because you’re worried about someone in your network who’s isolated.”

Research links loneliness to severe health consequences — including chronic stress, poor sleep, heart trouble and evenpremature death, while studies associate meaningful social connections with physiological well-being and longevity. Even in pre-pandemic times, finding meaningful social connections could be challenging. In a 2019 survey of 2,000 American adults, nearly half said they found it difficult to make new friends.

According to Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychology professor at Stony Brook University and co-creator of the popular 36 Questions that Lead to Love, one way to find closeness with strangers is to “do exciting things together” and share a “feeling you have things in common.” Mobile applications — like BarkHappy for dog-walkers, Peanut for moms, and BumbleBFF for anyone — can help, by allowing people to easily meet those with whom they share common interests, in-person. And platforms like VolunteerMatchcan help strangers connect over shared community service activities, like tutoring, gardening or cooking for a soup kitchen. Some research finds that volunteering itself can reduce feelings of isolation.

But in the age of social distancing, meeting in-person may seem too close for comfort, especially for people in high-risk groups.

“It’s been very taxing on me,” said Paula Johnson, a retired chemistry teacher who lives alone in Houston. As an involved grandmother, avid churchgoer and active volunteer in her community, Ms. Johnson typically has an abundance of connections. But she says the lockdown has her feeling isolated, and as if her “usefulness has been curtailed.”

To cope, Ms. Johnson turned to the virtual world of Living Room Conversations, and began opening up about experiences she wouldn’t otherwise get to talk about, like the racism she’s experienced as a Black woman living in the suburbs. “People were surprised I was so vulnerable with sharing, and it felt good to hear them say, ‘Wow, I wasn’t aware of that,’ or ‘You know, I never saw it that way,’” said Ms. Johnson, who now regularly hosts conversations, too.