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Unmute that Zoom call

Embrace the background noise of other people’s lives.

"Happiness — at least the pandemic version — is a group video call with all microphones on."
"Happiness — at least the pandemic version — is a group video call with all microphones on."BENJAMIN NORMAN/NYT

My first Zoom call with friends was on March 18 of last year, eight or nine of us in “Brady Bunch”-style boxes, sharing our uncertainty about the virus that was starting to shut down offices and schools and day cares. One friend chopped vegetables as we talked, and we could all hear the thud of knife hitting board. The noise didn’t bother me, but another friend, annoyed, asked her to mute.

I learned quickly that this is the first rule of video calls. Switch the microphone icon to “on” when it’s your turn to talk and to “off” at all other times. Background noise is the enemy. And so it went, on book club Zooms and birthday Zooms and baby shower Zooms, and really any Zoom that had more than four or five people. All of these parties were fine; none was particularly fun.


It’s only now, a year later, that I know the real enemy: the mute button. Happiness — at least the pandemic version — is a group video call with all microphones on. The more participants, the better.

I was skeptical, too, until I attended a magic show on Zoom. During his opening trick, the magician asked that we keep our cameras and microphones on throughout the performance. There were more than 100 of us in the room.

I didn’t know what a microphones-on Zoom sounded like, because nobody did it, but I figured it had to sound awful, because nobody did it. But I unmuted, and so did most of the others. And slowly, the room came to life. The magician did a card trick and people clapped, loudly and together. He told a joke, and people laughed, less loudly but still together. A voice saying, “Everyone dressed up! Why didn’t we dress up?” hit at a perfect moment of silence. I heard someone open a beer, which sounded different from a beer opening in my own house. It was all energizing in a way I hadn’t felt since the Before Times — the closest I have come in a year to feeling the joy of a crowded restaurant or theater.


What I’m describing, says social psychologist Shira Gabriel, is called collective effervescence — something that happens when you’re in a group “and you feel some kind of connection to the other people that are there, even if they’re people you don’t know,” she says. “You feel like the moment is special, something that transcends the regularness” of normal life.

The term began with 19th-century sociologist Émile Durkheim, who used it to explain what happens during religious rituals. Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, studies collective effervescence in a broader context. People can feel collective joy, she’s found, even in seemingly trivial everyday activities, like riding the bus with a bunch of strangers and realizing you’re all smiling at the same cute kid.

My happiness at hearing applause and idle chatter “makes sense,” she says. “It gives you a reminder that you’re experiencing something with other people, which is why it’s so special.”

In her research, Gabriel has found that feeling collective effervescence “is strongly predictive of feeling like your life has meaning and having more positive emotions,” she says. “And that’s even when you control for things like ‘How many good friends does a person have?’ ‘How close are they to their family?’ Having these moments of connection to large groups seems to be a really important human thing. And something that a lot of people have really been missing during the pandemic.”


“It’s a reminder that you’re not alone,” she says.

Alone wasn’t a word I had considered to describe the experience of being in a Zoom filled with people, but it lands. Group video chats have felt lonely even when they’ve been packed with faces. We wait through unnatural pauses while speakers toggle between mic off and on. Jokes linger uncomfortably in the air, because everyone is chuckling on mute, unless they’re unmuting to do so. On Zoom calls with friends, I want to feel like I’m at a party, but I feel more like I’m in a vacuum-sealed bag, opening it to speak and then air-locking myself back in. A virtual event will never be as satisfying as an in-person one, but I think of how much more human those birthdays would have felt with a little background noise, a housemate interrupting, a fridge opening, or a kid hollering, and I regret the microphone etiquette.

Since the pandemic began, Gabriel has been collecting data on digital interactions. She’s found that people who report feeling a sense of collective effervescence during online chats are “actually more likely to not break social distancing rules, because they’re able to fill their needs another way,” she says. “It’s not perfect, and I’m sure we’ll all be glad to be back with other people. But it’s much better than nothing.”


Sound engineers have spent hundreds of hours this past year mixing crowd noise and pumping it into empty sports arenas. Without it, the games feel off. The Zooms do, too. As we push through the home stretch of staying home, noisier Zooms will sustain me.

If the dog really won’t stop barking, the mute button is always there.

Marissa Conrad is a freelance journalist based in New York. Find more of her work at marissaconrad.com.