John M. Grohol, PsyD, a psychologist based in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He founded the mental health website PsychCentral.com.
Just because many relatives and friends may not be joining you in person for the holidays this year doesn’t mean that you can’t celebrate together. A virtual holiday gathering through a video-conferencing tool could be the next best thing to being there—or even better if in-person holiday gatherings tend to stress you out. Zoom has become the most popular video tool and is easy to use, although you could opt for Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts or another alternative. However, using video technology can be a little awkward—even before your Uncle Bill has one too many and starts up with his embarrassing stories from his youth. Three tips to help family holiday video calls go smoothly…
Get nontech-savvy participants up to speed before the holiday. Typically, the most frustrating part of one of these calls might be the first 15 to 30 minutes as most of the participants sit around waiting for the least tech-minded ones to figure out how to join. If certain members of the group have struggled during earlier video calls—or have never used the particular video platform the group has chosen—arrange a practice call with them before the holiday to work through any issues.
Helpful: You might want to limit the number of people who take part in any call. That makes it easier for anyone who wants to speak up to do so. The limit you set could be the number of participants who fit onto a single screen in “gallery view.” This varies by device and service but could be up to 49 people.
Schedule multiple themed holiday calls rather than one big call. If there’s a single video call for a big group, most participants will spend the majority of their time sitting around listening to small talk on topics that hold no interest for them. Instead, schedule a series of calls, each with a specific theme/activity of interest to a subset of the family.
Examples: There could be a cooking video call where family members bring their laptops/tablets to the kitchen and chat casually as they prepare dinner…a cocktail hour call, where family members share a drink together…a football video call, where family members watch a game together…and/or calls for each of the generations. These focused calls better replicate how families interact when they gather for holidays in a normal year. You can try to arrange a call during the meal as well, but between the cacophony of dinner noise and awkwardness of having laptops, tablets or phones on the table, many groups likely will conclude that it’s better to take a break from the video calls while you eat.
Helpful: If there’s a topic that inevitably causes friction—such as politics—ask the participants to agree in advance that it will be raised only during a single video call held specifically to discuss it. That way, family members who want to talk about that topic don’t feel muzzled, but those who don’t want to take part aren’t forced to listen.
Make video calls optional. Clarify that no one is required to take part in any or all of these holiday video calls and that it’s perfectly acceptable to join late, leave early or just drop in to say “Hi” without feeling guilty. This flexibility and informality increase the odds that the calls contribute to everyone’s enjoyment of the day rather than become a burden. As an added bonus, it means you can diplomatically drop out of a call when your least favorite participant starts in with strange theories or unhelpful advice.