The language of a pandemic
Our everyday language has become almost unrecognisable amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And with mixed and unclear messaging, it’s tricky to get a hold on what’s actually being said. Comma Chameleon looks at a new language frontier…
Coronavirus. Social distancing. Flatten the curve. Herd immunity. We’re speaking words and phrases these days that just a couple of months ago few of us had ever heard. Almost overnight a new language has sprung up, and we’re left emotionally and linguistically reeling.
So much of the new terminology we’re hearing has left us confused and unsure. Certainly in the
early stages of the pandemic, messaging from the government, health bodies and the media was mixed, fluffy and often contradictory. We’re all a bit clearer now about exactly where we stand and what we need to be doing, but nailing the message has felt rather like a large-scale experiment in marketing. But when the stakes are so high, getting the message right is absolutely vital. Get it wrong, and thousands more people could die. Get it right, and lives will be saved.
Even as we write, that feels like over-dramatic hyperbole. But as coronavirus continues to sweep the globe at a terrifying rate, the importance of using the right language cannot be overestimated.
Confusion is a killer
In the face of a global pandemic, the language we use needs to be clear, direct and uncompromising. It’s no good using words like ‘avoid’ and ‘try’, because there are always going to be people who will interpret them to fit their own needs. Give people wiggle room and they are going to wiggle as much as they can.
When Boris Johnson addressed the nation on 16 March and told us all to try and work from home and ‘avoid’ social venues, many people did just that. Families started isolating themselves. Companies started telling their employees to work from home. And restaurants began offering takeaway services where previously they hadn’t. This is exactly what the message intended.
But it hadn’t been issued as a direct order, and there were many other people who understood it to be nothing more than a friendly suggestion. Including, as it turned out, the Prime Minister’s own father, who insisted he would still be going to the pub if he needed to.
The message wasn’t strong enough. There was room for interpretation. And it turns out that telling the British public to ‘avoid’ the pub is akin to suggesting a toddler might like to consider NOT poking their sibling in the eye. It’s just not going to work.
It turns out that telling the British public to ‘avoid’ the pub is akin to suggesting a toddler might like to consider NOT poking their sibling in the eye. It’s just not going to work.
A balancing act
It’s hard to know whether the softly-softly approach taken by the UK Government in the early days of the pandemic was an attempt to avoid causing widespread panic, a reluctance to accept we were about to enter the sh*tstorm, or the result of a misguided belief that the UK wasn’t a nation of imbeciles; that we could be asked nicely to stay at home.
Whatever the reason, the Prime Minister was forced to get brutal. The ‘avoid social venues’ message was quickly rethought and strengthened, and on 20 March social venues including cafes, pubs, restaurants and gyms were ordered to close. But by then, of course, infection rates had increased massively, the death toll had risen, and a complete, nationwide lockdown had become inevitable.
Stay at home and follow the rules became the mantra.
But what if you don’t understand the rules?
Wash your hands (a lot and for longer) sort of speaks for itself. But self-isolation? Social distancing? These terms were new to all of us, and nobody seemed to know what was expected of them.
It’s hard to know whether the softly-softly approach taken by the UK Government in the early days of the pandemic was an attempt to avoid causing widespread panic, a reluctance to accept we were about to enter the sh*tstorm, or the result of a misguided belief that the UK wasn’t a nation of imbeciles; that we could be asked nicely to stay at home
Staying two metres apart from other people is a fine message to send out, as long as everyone knows what 2m. looks like. But how many of us know how far 2m. is without a frame of reference? Not many, we’ll bet.
The Canadian government has played a blinder with its social distancing messaging, and included on its posters and flyers the real-world example of an ice hockey stick. In Canada, every other person and their dog plays ice hockey. And even those who don’t are certainly aware of exactly how long an ice hockey stick is. Turns out, it’s about 2m. ‘Stay a hockey stick away from each other’ is basically what they’re being told, and everyone knows what that means.
For us in the UK, there’s been no such yardstick. We’ve had to guess what 2m. looks like. And walking around our neighbourhood during our government-sanctioned daily exercise has been a wake-up call as to how few people actually know how far 2m. is. Perhaps that’s because most Brits think in feet and inches? Or perhaps we’ve just never had to think about it before.
Social media has, of course, stepped in to ‘help’ by offering a real-world example for the British. And apparently Richard Osman is our frame of reference. Because we’ve all met him, right? We’ve all had him lie down on the floor next to us, and we can perfectly recall this image when trying to judge if we’re too close to the sneezy dude in front of us in the queue for Aldi.
Saving lives, one Netflix series at a time
The message from the UK Government seems to have finally been nailed down. ‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’
‘Stay home’ is as clear as it gets. There’s no room for misunderstanding it, and little wiggle room. Anyone who chooses to flout it left without an excuse with which to defend themselves.
‘Protect the NHS’. That’s something we all want to do right now. Even the Conservative government. As a nation, we’re heading on to our doorsteps every Thursday evening to cheer and show our thanks for the health and care workers who are fighting this pandemic on the front lines. The NHS is a beloved institution, so the idea that ignoring the rules would put it at risk is enough to make (most of) us obey.
And if saving the NHS isn’t quite enough to make us stay at home, the ‘Save lives’ instruction should do it.
Who knew we could all be heroes by staying at home and watching Netflix?
Ignorance is bliss
Of course there are still those utter tools who are ignoring the lockdown orders. Police are storming pubs that are still doing trade. Teenagers are still meeting up with their mates, sometimes gathering in parks and forcing parents to explain to their toddlers why THEY aren’t allowed on the swings, even though the big kids are using them. Arguably you’re never going to get through to these sorts of people. But if most of us are doing what we should, the hope is that we’ll eventually get this virus beaten.
On 22 April, the number of coronavirus cases worldwide passed 2.5 million, and the global death toll surpassed 170,000. We’ve all seen the graphs. We’ve all seen how social distancing can impact the spread of the coronavirus. We all know what it will take to flatten the curve. Now. It’s hard to consider how different things might have been if we’d had clearer messaging in the beginning. Would stronger language and and bolder decisions by governments have nipped this virus in the bud before it had wrought the havoc we have seen over recent weeks? We can only guess at the answer.
Hopefully we won’t ever need to implement the lessons we’ve learned. Hopefully this will prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But if it turns out not to be, at least we’ll all know how to act. And we’ll have a better idea of the language we’ll need to use.
And if we forget, here’s a glossary of terms we’ve put together for you to download and keep.
Stay safe, guys.
The Comma Chameleon team