Processing the plague year

A conversation with Priya Parker, taking stock of how the time of Covid changed us

If you follow this space, you have come to expect a parade of interviews. Without exception, none of the people being interviewed has been my wife. Until today.

A few months ago, I was asked by the South by Southwest festival to interview my quarantine barber, Priya Parker, a brilliant conflict-resolution facilitator and expert on gathering, to take stock of the year when gatherings stopped and conflicts surged. (Sign up for her free newsletter here.)

It is hard for me to characterize the wide-ranging conversation that follows. But it became a kind of year-in-review of the plague time, a reflection on what changed, what was revealed, and how we might live now in the light of what we have discovered.

Zoom, Black Lives Matter, virtual hot tubbing, organizational reckonings, the European level of shirt buttoning, and the roaring decade to come — it’s all below.

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“Zoom is not a place”: a conversation with Priya Parker

ANAND: So you have dedicated your working life to the question of how people come together and how they come apart. Because I'm your husband, as well as a close reader of your work, I know why you do that work. But can you talk about how your family background and early life prepared you to be the queen of gathering?

PRIYA: Like so many people, my work is deeply influenced by the way that I was raised and my experience as a young person. As you know, I'm biracial, I'm bicultural. I have a mother who is Indian, from the north, and a white American father from Iowa. 

For the first 12 years of their marriage, they were each other's source of adventure, rebellion. I was born in Zimbabwe. Every two years, they'd pick up and move to another country. We lived in the Maldives, in Indonesia, in India, and eventually moved back to the States. And within a year, they separated. And within two years, they divorced. And within three years, they each remarried other people, as you know, and —

ANAND: They doubled down.

PRIYA: And doubled down.

In a way, they each went back to the kind of world that they originally came from. I'm their only child, and they had joint custody. So every two weeks, I would go back and forth between these two homes.

Leaving my mother and stepfather's home, I was leaving an Indian-British, Buddhist, vegetarian, atheist, agnostic-on-hopeful-days, liberal, vegetarian, Landmark Forum-y family; and I would travel 1.4 miles to my father and stepmother's home, and it was, and still is, a white American, evangelical Christian, conservative Republican, twice-a-week-church-going, climate-skeptic family. And I was a part of both.

My name, as you know, is Priya Parker, and a huge part of the way I was raised was, every two weeks, going back and forth between two created realities that often denied each other's truths.

ANAND: People don't know your middle name is “1.4 Miles,” actually.

PRIYA: Exactly. Priya “1.4 Miles” Parker. So I've always been interested in why we come together and why we come apart — in a sense, because every two weeks, I had two very different ways to start dinner, ways to have people over, ways to celebrate, ways to mark, ways to mourn. I knew that there wasn't just one way to be, and I became a group conflict-resolution facilitator.

ANAND: I want to fast forward to a year ago. A little more than a year ago, things are what they are in the world. I'm not saying good or bad, but they're not this. You've dedicated your life to this question of gathering. And then, suddenly, a pandemic hits. Do you remember the moment when you realized, "Oh gosh, this thing that is my thing in the world is about to die”?

PRIYA: I started noticing that the word “gathering,” which is a word out there but not often in a lot of headlines, was getting a lot of ink. I started seeing gatherings canceled, the governor of Washington State limiting the size of gatherings, all of this discourse. Officials were arguing about the size of gatherings, which is usually the domain of nerdy facilitators and sociologists.

ANAND: So what did you do when you realized that people were about to go through a very long spell of un-gathering? Was your first reaction, I guess I'm going to take the next year off? I guess I have nothing to offer these people? Or did you think there was a way to help people un-gather the way you dedicated yourself to helping them gather?

PRIYA: As a facilitator, the way I think about my work is I am somebody who understands how to help, or who tries to help, a group, despite significant obstacles, connect. Those obstacles could be race, or power, or gender, or different visions in a company. And I realized at some level that not being able to come together physically in person is a significant obstacle to meaningful connection. Fortunately, I'm not tied to any form of a gathering. The book that I wrote is called “The Art of Gathering,” and that was a bit awkward.

ANAND: You were advocating an illegal activity.

PRIYA: Exactly.

And I think the other thing is, at the time, I was working on a podcast with The New York Times that was supposed to be called “Gathering with Priya Parker.”

A producer texted me that week, and he said, "A show called “Gathering” is now going to sound like a horror film. We have to pause. We have to stop. The meaning of this word is completely different now. We have to stop.” And I remember talking to you. We went on a walk.

ANAND: We spend a lot of time together.

PRIYA: We spend a lot of time together. 

But I noticed that in my inbox and my DMs and my Instagram — is that called DMs also? — I was still getting a lot of questions. The questions were turning, though, and the questions were things like, "We've planned our wedding for the last three years; it's supposed to be in two months. Do we cancel it? Do we do it on Zoom? Do we postpone it?" Teachers asking like, "How do I teach virtually? How do I connect with my students when I can't physically touch them?" 

And so we paused, and I realized we still need to figure out how to meaningfully navigate together, and we will be coming together, just not physically. How do we actually do this? And so we pivoted, and we launched a podcast called “Together Apart,” every episode answering one person's question about how to navigate this moment in a way with a group that you care about when you can't all be in the same room.

ANAND: It's been such a head-down year of just trying to figure out what's the next thing in front of you, just trying to get through the day, just trying to get through the week, just trying to do your job, feed your children, whatever it is. 

But this year is eventually going to take a lot of processing, cultural processing — like, what is it that we really lived through? What is it that we did? How did we change? How do we think about it? So I wonder if we can just go through a lightning round of some of the shared cultural phenomena of this year, and if you can give us a first draft of gathering history as we go. 

I want to start with the 7 p.m. pot clanking in New York City for first responders — and, of course, there were versions of this around the world. What do you make of the meaning of that kind of phenomenon and things like it in this past year?

PRIYA: The 7 p.m. clanking was, interestingly, actually started by a PR firm. It became a viral sensation in part because it hit a collective need. And what that moment was every evening was a collective mechanism to help people name, face, process, acknowledge this chaotic, scary moment. And as I watched it, I was very moved by it in part because, particularly in the U.S., we are so resistant to the idea of anything collective.

ANAND: Zoom. So many of us spent so much time on Zoom this past year. No one feels good about having done that, but it happened. I wonder how you process the cultural meaning of Zoom as it evolved from this fringy thing to something everybody was doing and the cultural practices of gathering that you saw developing on it.

PRIYA: I think many of these technologies are rapidly trying to figure out what they're for. Zoom, like so many technologies, was not created for all of the use cases that were demanded of it over the last 12 months — it was really a workplace, a place for formal meetings. Then people started using it for choir practice, and they discovered quite early that the way that the algorithm was built was not imagining that people would want to hear each other at the same time. And so the mic chooses which screen to prioritize, and it almost sounds like a solo, right?

We've used it for funerals; we've used it for weddings. You and I have attended multiple weddings on Zoom. We use it for meetings, for parent-teacher conferences, for interviews.

Zoom is not a place. 

You don't have a door to come into. You don't have almonds on the table. You don't have music playing. You don't have a decision to choose which chairs to sit on and whether you're a front-of-the-room person or a back-of-the-room person. And as I think about the year in review, it's really hard to hide a bad meeting on Zoom, because there are no distractions. You can't subsidize a bad meeting with the chocolate-covered almonds in the middle of the table or by grabbing the person you actually want to talk to on the way out of the room.

It's really hard to hide a bad meeting. And so I think one of the things that happened quickly for a lot of companies and organizations is it revealed bad meetings.

ANAND: And maybe bad companies or organizations.

PRIYA: Absolutely.

ANAND: And cultures.

PRIYA: Absolutely. Power dynamics were actually made much more explicit. I remember reading an article early on about how mansplaining was actually even more pronounced on Zoom, because of the way the algorithm worked.

But what is it good for? Overall, it's decent for formal, structured conversations. It kind of mimics “Robert's Rules of Order.” I've heard from diplomats and facilitators who were actually in certain contexts of a lot of hierarchy that squares can be equalizing. It depends on the context. And breakout rooms can be created, but you need to be able to do it well and learn: How do you create a doorway? How do you enter the space? How do you exit?

What it’s really bad for is spontaneity, informality. And actually, in my field, conflict. It's really hard to have productive, healthy, tense conversations, because it's easier to exit. You don't have the different mechanisms of, Everyone's in here together. And so I think that as an entire technology, it blew up at a moment when it had enough bandwidth and infrastructure for us to use it. And now there are a lot of companies trying to solve a lot of its problems.

ANAND: Another defining thing of this year that in some ways was separate and apart from the pandemic and in another way intersected with it was the Black Lives Matter protests last summer and onward. Obviously, they happened because of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and other cases, but do you think they unfolded the way they did, or had the galvanizing power they did, because of the plague year we were in?

PRIYA: Yes. And speaking with activists who are part of those movements, they would agree.

I think that, specifically, everybody was at home, watching their screens, and the murder of George Floyd was an individual and a collective calculation that this is worth putting myself in harm's way for. It's almost like, This is worth going out onto the streets for. And there's a collective focus moment and many years building up to it. As a friend of mine said to me, "If I don't go out on the streets for this, then what? What is my body for?"

ANAND: What have you observed as some of the most interesting experiments that people engaged in this past year when they couldn't gather or when they had to gather differently? What are the newest, strangest things, particularly things that may actually outlive this plague year?

PRIYA: If I think back a year ago, one of the first ones where people were like, "Whoa, what is happening?" was D-Nice's DJ set on Instagram.

ANAND: I got a notification today. That guy's still at it.

PRIYA: He's now doing a 24-hour anniversary set. At some point in the early set, 100,000 people had entered the Instagram room. It was humongous. Janet Jackson was in the room. Michelle Obama made an appearance. Bernie Sanders apparently made an appearance. Mark Zuckerberg made an appearance and someone joked he should buy everyone a round of beers. And D-Nice was reacting in real time. You could see his head kind of exploding. Janet Jackson came in and she's freaking out and he stops and he plays Janet Jackson songs to honor his guest.

And so that experiment to me was fascinating because it was a simultaneous example of both no velvet rope — anyone could access this democratic space — while still having a sense of a velvet rope. It was this weird, beautiful, democratic experience of exclusion and inclusion simultaneously existing. When I mean exclusion, it's like it was exclusive enough — or safe enough is maybe a better word — that big names were willing to enter for a second. And yet literally anyone with an internet connection could join. I thought that was a fascinating experience.

The second one that I will always remember is a tweet that I read. It was something like, "Last night, I experienced something that felt uniquely digitally native. I was in a party, and I was in a Zoom room, and I ended up in the hot tub room. And everybody was sitting in their own tubs at home. And it turned into a game of naughty Truth or Dare." And I remember seeing this tweet and it blew my mind.

ANAND: Wasn't that the Zoom Jeffrey Toobin was supposed to be on?

PRIYA: Exactly.

ANAND: I think he pressed the wrong Zoom link.

The next question I'm going to ask you is about the racial reckoning that the country's living through right now beyond the protests of last summer, raised in many ways by the questions of those protests, but really going beyond them into every organization, newsroom, company, university. 

Your public-facing work is more about gathering, but you do a lot of conflict work in your practice, and a lot of this racial reckoning work in one way or another. Can you talk about what you think is happening?

PRIYA: You know, I work within some of these organizations. But I also just watch in the news what's happening with organizations around the country. And there's a pattern that I've seen that, in those first two weeks after George Floyd's murder — basically, it was what I would call a triggering event. It was an event that was unignorable, both as a country but also within organizations, families, systems, groups. And there was this dynamic — and I think probably the most famous example of this is the Wing, the women's social club — of organizations wanting to put out a statement in support of Black lives, and employees and staff internally saying, "Don't do that until you get your house clean inside."

There were multiple moments forcing internal reckonings. And I think it's a good thing. I think overall, as a facilitator, we are in a moment of national group, family-system grappling, and grappling when done well asks the fundamental questions of "Who are we? Who did we think we are? Who has it been revealed that we actually are? And how do we go about fixing that?"

And the fixing is extraordinarily messy, in part because — this gets more to your work — we are the first multicultural, multiracial democracy in history. And we're inventing the answers. And it's extraordinarily messy. But what happened with BLM is not just the protest and not just the memory of the protest, but it fundamentally shifted the conversation and has forced facings at every level of every group in the country.

ANAND: One of the saddest and strangest aspects to the past year is that so many people died, but died alone, suffered alone, in some cases were buried alone, because of the difficulty of doing funerals.

What have you observed about the practice of grief in this time? And what collective grieving do you think we're going to still have to do once we're able to actually do everything?

PRIYA: We are experiencing both collective and individual levels of grief at a level that we've never at least been aware of before. I was sort of joking earlier that arguing about group size used to be something associated just with facilitators, and then it became part of the public debate.

There's anticipatory grief, which was like March and April, 2020 — all the things we will not be able to do, all the people we may lose. More recently, there was anniversary grief, all of the elements that are coming up as you get notifications of where you were one year ago, and you start seeing the collapse of the pictures over two weeks.

There is expertise and wisdom in fields that exist to help us with this moment. There are groups like the Dinner Party that just produced a PDF to help create collective grief mechanisms. 

ANAND: As you know, I used to shop at a store called Suitsupply. It supplies suits; it's Dutch. I got a couple suits there for a wedding. My size went up. So I didn't wear those suits for a while, but it's not a big deal.

There was recently a Suitsupply ad. It circulated around the internet as a possible symbol of what the decade to come is going to be like. And I'll just say it involved people in suits, to be sure, with a very European level of shirt buttoning. In Europe, I think they button them right before the belly button. And then just tongues.

You didn't see this ad?

PRIYA: I mean, it's just interesting hearing you describe it.

ANAND: It's like tongues everywhere — tongues galore — but it was a suit ad. It was an ad for suits.

It makes your heart still or beat faster, I don't know. And my question is, what are the roaring '20s going to be like? Is the Suitsupply ad right? Are we on the verge of a wild era that's coming? Are we going to be actually traumatized and not as wild as we think we are? Both? What do you think the next decade is going to be like?

PRIYA: I think it is going to be messy, physically messy. And at least for a while, people just deeply enjoying the physical benefits of gathering and all of the manifestations of it that we couldn't do before.

I think we are about to witness a moment for some period of time where we will no longer take for granted physical gathering. And we will see extraordinary forms of physically based joy and transgression and —

ANAND: Tongues.

PRIYA: Tongues.

ANAND: Belly buttons and European buttoning.

PRIYA: Everything — and deep joy. And I think there will also be moments in those moments of ecstasy that we will connect with our grief because we are safe enough to allow for that grief to come out. Perhaps it's like in a moment of rapture, starting to bawl, because all of a sudden, all of the things that we've been holding are allowed to be witnessed and shared and seen and OK. So I think it will be a mix of emotions and guilt and pleasure and, at least for some time, no longer taking for granted this thing that we did for very long and were on autopilot about, which was gathering.

ANAND: So get your tongues ready, get your suits out and pressed, and get those buttons lowered. The era, the decade, of gathering, is upon us. Thank you so much, Priya Parker.

PRIYA: Thank you so much, Anand Giridharadas.

Priya Parker is a conflict-resolution facilitator and author of “The Art of Gathering: Why We Meet and Why it Matters.” You can sign up for her free newsletter here. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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Photos: Mackenzie Stroh