In case you haven’t been invited to one yet, here’s how it works. You arrange your beverages and snacks around your computer, make sure your webcam is set up and click a common link, which takes you into the Zoom meeting. If you don’t like the looks of your living room, you can replace it with a virtual background — a beach, space or even just a better-looking living room. (Retailers such as West Elm and Behr are getting in on the Zoom background game, highlighting their own products, of course.)
Zoom executives were amazed to see their enterprise tool, launched in 2011, turn into a party platform. “It humbles us a little bit to see how people are using Zoom and how they are being creative,” said Colleen Rodriguez, a Zoom spokeswoman. (Usage grew from 10 million daily meeting participants in December to 300 million in April, including both business and personal gatherings.)
But the virtual cocktail party, like all social gatherings, relies on good manners to keep the experience pleasant for all. Just like in the physical world, there are people who won’t stop blabbing, who stare at their phones or who show up with surprise guests.
“It’s a fabulous new way of socializing and extremely user-friendly, convenient and inexpensive,” said Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach. “Yes, there are some things you should do and not do, but the rules for virtual happy hours are still evolving. They will be in the new chapters of 2020 etiquette books.”
Online invitation company Paperless Post had a steep drop-off of business in March as coronavirus fears tanked parties of all kinds, according to James Hirschfeld, co-founder and chief executive. But soon, customers were back on the site adding Zoom links to online invites. (Virtual party invites are now 60 percent of its business.) “People started finding out that you can enjoy yourself and have more conversations than you might have in a real party at these things,” Hirschfeld said. “I found it amazing how much people needed social interaction and became adaptable to this.”
They’re not for everyone. If you’ve always loathed cocktail parties or you don’t want to appear in public with bad quarantine hair and hideous lighting, you might not be into this.
When Barbra Streisand called Jimmy Fallon’s cellphone in the middle of a recent “Tonight Show” monologue, he put her on speaker and chatted about her new video for first responders. As they were wrapping up, Fallon said: “Maybe I’ll give you a call later and we’ll have some Zoom cocktails for your birthday.”
Streisand responded: “No, don’t Zoom me. Call me on the phone. Because I’m not a Zoomer, okay?”
But watch your inbox. The summer Zoom cocktail season kicks off Memorial Day weekend. These guidelines will help you mind your manners.
Do take your host duties seriously
If you are hosting the party and send out the Zoom link, you have a responsibility to your guests. Depending on your settings, you may have to be in the session before anyone else can join. Be ready to welcome the group, and once everyone’s online, do introductions if you need to, Whitmore said. It’s your job to keep the conversation going. “It’s hard, but don’t let one person hog the spotlight,” she said. People are going through many emotions during this scary time — and they may have a lot to say.
As the host, you set the length for the party. It’s a good idea to put a limit on it, maybe one hour, two hours max. (Remember, the free version of Zoom will cut you off after 40 minutes if you have three or more participants.) “It can be exhausting staring into a screen without a break,” Whitmore said. “People get tired and bored after a while. At a regular cocktail party, you can get a drink and work the room. But you can’t get away from these people on Zoom. They are all there for the whole time, and if you have somebody who is charm-free, you have to listen to them with no place to go.”
Don't share the link without telling the host
Hosting a virtual cocktail party is similar to hosting in the real world, Whitmore said: A good guest would never show up with more guests without clearing it in advance.
“Some people don’t care and just feel like the more the merrier,” she said. But unless you know your host feels that way, don’t force any more people into the mix.
“It would be rude for you to give your Zoom link to people who were not invited by the host,” Whitmore said. “If you feel like somebody can contribute to the party or if that person is staying at your house, ask the host if it’s okay.”
Be prepared to have your idea vetoed. “As the person hosting,” she said, “you can say, ‘I want to keep this very intimate. Let’s think about inviting Bob and Suzie next time. Thank you for reminding me they are still out there and would like to join us. But for now, I have this party organized.’ ”
Don't show up late
There’s no “fashionably late” when it comes to Zoom entertaining.
“It’s depressing to be staring at an empty screen with your cocktail,” Hirschfeld said. “You should be right on time, especially if you are the host.”
While you would be okay dropping by a 6-to-8 cocktail party at 6:30, in the Zoom world, that would be extremely rude. “Even though this is a cocktail party, you should treat this as you would a business meeting, whether real or virtual,” Whitmore said. “Be on time.”
If you absolutely must be late, let the host know. Otherwise, Whitmore said, the rest of the guests might sit around waiting for you, delaying the conversation.
Do acquaint yourself with the mute button
Your fellow partyers don’t need to hear your kids fighting. If you are new to Zoom, take a minute when you sign on to find the mute button. Rodriguez said she mutes if her dog is barking “or if I am sitting outside and a neighbor is mowing their lawn.” Just remember to unmute yourself when you want to say something.
“If you are not doing Zoom all the time and are searching around for mute and unmute, you might miss something, and your moment to make a contribution to a conversation may pass you by,” she said.
Do keep the numbers reasonable
“If I were to host a dinner party, I would invite six to eight people,” Whitmore said. “Those are the perfect numbers for a Zoom party as well. It allows for time to meet everybody, even if the cocktail party is scheduled for only one hour.”
If you have more guests than that, it might get complicated if someone starts to monopolize the conversation. And if people get bored, they might be tempted to ghost the party, later blaming “bad WiFi.” It is not okay, Whitmore said, to just disappear from a party, virtual or otherwise. If for some reason you need to leave, say goodbye.
Also don’t forget the text chat function, where if you can’t seem to get a word in edgewise, you can send a message to one or more of the participants on the side of the screen. “This is sort of like texting someone when you are at a bar or a cocktail party,” Rodriguez said.
“People looking at their phones is a no-no,” Hirschfeld said.
Although it’s tempting, he said, “it’s rude.”
“When someone’s physical presence isn’t in front of you, you think you can multitask,” he said. “People may be used to doing this at work, but you would never do that in a social context.”
Whitmore said if your phone buzzes and you are expecting something, you can glance down quickly. “Maybe it’s your child texting you and you need to send a quick text back. That’s okay. But make it short.”
What is not okay, she said, is typing things on your computer while everybody else is deep in conversation.
If a host sees people drifting off, perhaps it’s time to step in and give people a gracious out. “You could say, ‘We’ve been here for an hour now, and if some people need to go, that’s fine, and if a few people want to stay on for an additional half-hour, that’s great,’ ” she said. “It gives permission for someone to exit without feeling awkward.”
But some people just want to keep talking. “Be sensitive to people who are going through a hard time. Try and bring everyone into the conversation,” Whitmore said. “This is a great way to catch up with friends far away who you hardly ever talk to,” Whitmore said. “We all need our friends even more these days.”