The best part of any social gathering is the haphazard array of smaller, more intimate gatherings into which it inevitably breaks down. Just ask Shakespeare, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Edith Wharton. Romeo and Juliet meet during a stolen moment in the middle of a masquerade ball. Nick Carraway inadvertently befriends Jay Gatsby at a party when he’s off to the side, gossiping about Gatsby. The love affair between Newland Archer and Countess Ellen Olenska begins when the pair share a private giggle during a dinner, just out of earshot of the other guests.
I’ve been thinking wistfully about side conversations a lot the past few weeks. Like many others who are sheltering in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, I’ve participated in a number of Zoom happy hours of late. As friends trickle into the videoconference, one by one they demand to know how the friend who lives abroad is doing, you know, under the circumstances; how the friend whose wedding has been postponed is doing, how the friend who works in a hospital is doing. Each of the aforementioned friends then has to respond, while those of us who have been on the call from the start hear their responses for a second, third, fourth time. Eventually, lagging internet connections and the subsequent chaos of people talking simultaneously (“Sorry, you go!” “No, you go!”) force us all into a weird pattern of monologuing one after another. At this point, I always find myself desperately wishing I could discreetly ask another participant to “go get a refill,” or subtly invite them to break away and catch up in a quieter and less chaotic conversation of our own. (Sure, we could start a side chat on another platform or text each other, but it’s not the same.)