Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson opens the Hidden Harms Summit via Zoom from the White Room of 10 Downing Street during COVID-19 in London, Britain, on May 21, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

With no place to go on Friday nights, a growing number of those stuck at home are embracing the #zoomhappyhour.

Lonely people who had never heard of Zoom — let alone held a Zoom business meeting — before we began social distancing two months ago are navigating the video conferencing platform.

In case you haven’t yet been invited to one yet, here’s how it works. You arrange your 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, outer 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).

Other platforms — House party, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp — have their differences but have been serving the same, novel purpose: getting socially isolated friends together virtually.

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,” Colleen Rodriguez, a Zoom spokeswoman, said. (Usage grew from 10 million daily meeting participants in December to 300 million in April, including both business and personal gatherings.)

These guidelines will help you mind your manners.

1. 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 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 awhile. 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.”

2. Don’t share the link without telling the host

Hosting a virtual 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 OK.”

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 organised.’ “

3. 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 OK dropping by a 6-to-8  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.”

4. Do acquaint yourself with the mute button

Your fellow partiers 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 neighbour 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.

5. 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 party is scheduled for only one hour.”

If you have more guests than that, it might get complicated if someone starts to monopolise the conversation. And if people get bored, they might be tempted to ghost the party, later blaming “bad WiFi.” It is not OK, Whitmore said, to just disappear from a party, virtual or otherwise. If for some reason you need to leave, say goodbye.

6. Don’t multitask

“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 OK. But make it short.”

— Jura Koncius is a writer specialising in interiors and lifestyle