Diffusing the awkwardness: How to make small talk in a Zoom breakout room

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Ah, breakout rooms. Sometimes they make sense, and other times there is a mutual groan that may be shared among students behind muted screens. Think of it like this: Breakout rooms give you the chance to talk to people you would have never interacted with in an in-person lecture. Small talk can be difficult if the vibes are off, but hopefully you feel better equipped after reading some of our helpful tips.

Do: Say hi, and maybe ask what people’s majors are.

Don’t: Quickly look up everyone in your room on Facebook to try to talk about a mutual friend or something weirdly specific.

Since you’re trying to make a good first impression, it’s best to keep the questions broad at first. Don’t force a connection. Just treat the situation as though you were having a conversation in person. What are some initial questions you would ask people? Some safe questions to ask are related to major, year and maybe about the class itself.

Do: Ask if people are thinking about switching to letter grades or staying with P/NP.

Don’t: Go on a rant about why the class y’all are in should be P/NP’ed.

The last thing you want is to overdo things and take up the entire time that you guys are in a breakout room. If this happens, you can bet that everyone else in the room will be thankful they don’t have to talk. The point of breakout rooms, however, is to make people feel more comfortable with working in groups, so a little discomfort is unavoidable.

Do: Check in with people and how they are doing.

Don’t: Try to avoid talking about the coronavirus or bring it up in a humorous context.

We’re all living through this together, so don’t try to avoid the effects of COVID-19. For some people, lecture is a way to escape the constant flow of the news, either personal or worldwide. You want to avoid talking about a meme or bringing the coronavirus in a humorous light, as you may not know how the disease has affected people’s personal lives. A check-in is a great idea because it’s an easy question to answer, and most people appreciate the thought.

Do: Confront the awkwardness in the beginning.

Don’t: Be passive aggressive if no one responds.

If the other tips don’t help, then maybe your class is super early in the day and people are still trying to shake off the sleepiness. It may be the case that people just don’t want to talk, and the best way to acknowledge this is to just slip in that “sometimes breakout rooms are awkward ahah.” Hopefully that diffuses the tension enough to get someone else to speak. If you end up having a conversation with one other person in the group, just leave it at that. Don’t start making passive aggressive comments about others not speaking. It really messes with the vibe.

Do: Talk about your experience or give context before asking a question to the group. 

Don’t: Enter the breakout room and start asking random questions.

Sometimes the instructor will have a question on hand, and that is the best-case scenario. If a question isn’t provided, no worries. The key here is to not ask a question bare bones, without any context or any sort of introduction. 

Breakout rooms don’t have to be a chore. They are an opportunity to have positive human interaction, and small talk shouldn’t be a barrier between you and an enlightening exchange with other people in your class. If these tips don’t work, try to come up with creative ways to make the situation less tense, and the other participants will appreciate you for it!

Contact Malvika Singhal at [email protected] .