Last month at our first online editorial brainstorm, a colleague asked why the World Health
Organisation (WHO) uses the term 'social distancing'? It felt a little odd, if not a tad ironic, that there we were, some ten of us being quite social on social media while discussing the relevance of the term' social distancing.' We were being anything but socially distant.
Text: Conrad Egbert
Wouldn't 'physical distancing' be a better term instead, someone asked. After all, we're meant to keep away from each other physically. And so it went on. But while the answer may seem obvious at first, if you go deeper, you'll find there's more to it than meets the aching Covid eye.
"Social distancing is the official term the WHO uses for pandemics," explains clinical psychologist Morgwn Paris. "Physical distancing might appear to be a better choice, but in fact, it's only one aspect of social distancing".
Paris, who previously lived in Denmark, flew back to Australia in March, where she was quarantined in a hotel for a fortnight before being allowed back home. She believes the WHO's choice of words is deeply rooted in psychology.
"Given the times we live in, where the word 'social' is closely associated with the term' social media', it's ambiguous to then call for social distancing when you really mean physical distancing – which today mean two very different things," says Associate Professor Martin Ehrensvärd, who specialises in linguistics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark."
"It's not just about the physical distance between people, it's a lot more. It says to us: 'we want you to be socially responsible; we want you to think more broadly about your social lifestyle and the daily social activities in your life, we want you to think about the recommended precautionary measures if you happen to be in a social setting. For example, don't drink from the same glass or eat from the same plate, avoid going to parties or unnecessary social gatherings. The term is meant to work like a buzzword that triggers your mind into survival mode during a pandemic."
Interestingly prominent clinical psychologist and author Dr. Steven Taylor alludes to the same thing. In his book The Psychology of Pandemics, he says the term social distancing is one of several methods used to communicate perceived risk to people in the hope that they will pay closer attention to their social habits and be more aware of their actions. A relevant excerpt from his book warns, "People may be more likely to contract pathogens from [other] people who are socially close to them because they are more frequently in contact."
The term social distancing has been used to fight various pandemics and outbreaks right up until SARS in 2002, but we mustn't forget that this was before the age of social media – a new term, which has changed what the word 'social' means to us. Today we spend most of our waking hours on social media and when we think 'social' we instinctively reach for our mobile phones. Whether it's sharing pictures and videos on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat or working from home via Zoom, LinkedIn or Twitter, we're being social. And so the term social distancing might seem a bit regressive today; more so in the future.
As the world evolves, so do cultures and languages, and this includes the meanings of words and what they signify – like the word 'social' for example.
"Given the times we live in, where the word 'social' is closely associated with the term social media, it's ambiguous to then call for social distancing when you really mean physical distancing – which today mean two very different things," says Associate Professor Martin Ehrensvärd, who specialises in linguistics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. "We need to socialise, more than ever during lockdowns and a safe and responsible way of doing that is by coming together on the many social media platforms we have out there."
As the world cautiously begins to reopen for business, perhaps now is a good time to rethink our communication strategy too.
Since the term physical distancing is lacking and social distancing is irrelevant, perhaps a little tweaking could do the trick in forming a new and more positive buzzword for the future – Socialise Distantly – we've been doing it for almost two decades anyway.