During the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, we were bombarded by communications from brands and companies, and that experience once again demonstrated that words matter. Early in April 2020, Sarah Larson and I explored the vocabulary of crisis and how COVID-19 has changed our language. By now, most people know what social distancing is and what PPE means, as well as the differences between an epidemic and a pandemic.
As the pandemic continued and public sentiment evolved, we wrote again about language, this time focusing on positive language for pandemic communications. We shared a list of words and phrases that consumers would like to see stricken from the English language, by now, and we also highlighted words and phrases that can be reframed in a more positive and useful way. Examples include:
- Stay at home, instead of stuck at home
- Next normal, in place of new normal
- Physical distancing, as opposed to social distancing
- Optimistic, rather than stay positive
- Return to the office, not return to work
As we begin to return to offices and social settings, we must find ways to use positive language to avoid conflict. Like me, many of you likely are hearing stories of how people are being accosted for walking down the street without a mask. In fact, I’ve been the recipient of heated discourse online for expressing my own concerns (something I don’t do often and am well aware that it opens the discourse up for conflicting views). However, as we learn to navigate the next normal, it is helpful to identify ways to be forthcoming while avoiding conflict.
Positive Language Alternatives to Avoid Conflict Due to COVID-19 Culture Shifts
In addition to changing our language palette, we must find ways to communicate our preferences or needs in a way that does not antagonize others. This is going to be difficult for many coming from a place of fear. Before masks were mandatory in the grocery stores, I found myself rolling my eyes and gritting my teeth at people who were not abiding by the recommendations. I even found myself getting angry when someone let their children run around the store and touch everything in sight. My knee-jerk reaction was, “What the heck? Don’t you know there’s a global health pandemic?” While I maintained self-control and held my tongue, I felt angry. With this in mind, we all need to find ways to communicate while avoiding conflict.
Asking Someone to Wear a Mask
For most of us, wearing a mask still feels quite foreign and rather uncomfortable. People have complained about everything from ears hurting to eyeglasses fogging up. I, for one, wear my glasses over the nose portion of the mask so they don’t fog and I can see things I’m trying to read (especially if I have to go to the grocery store). Mask wearing, like vaccines, is not everyone’s cup of tea. And while we can’t inspire an anti-vaxxer to run to the doctor’s office to get their vaccines, we can and should ask people to put on a mask in certain situations.
Helena Lawrence, the senior marketing and business development manager for Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, recommends saying, “Wearing a mask communicates that I respect you.” I add, “so please consider putting on your mask while we’re in close proximity.”
Asking Someone to Physically Distance
The New York Times published an excellent article, What We Know About Your Chances of Catching the Virus Outdoors. It notes:
The good news: Interviews show a growing consensus among experts that, if Americans are going to leave their homes, it’s safer to be outside than in the office or the mall. With fresh air and more space between people, the risk goes down. But experts also expressed particular caution about outdoor dining, using locker rooms at pools and crowds in places like beaches. While going outside can help people cope with quarantine fatigue, there is a risk they will lower their guard or meet people who are not being safe.
As one who loves the outdoors, I have been spending time walking our dogs at the local lake. The paths are eight to ten feet wide and the entire circuit is about six miles long, plenty of space within which to physically distance. I often have encountered the need to ask people to step aside so I may pass. While I keep a mask in hand or wear a bandana around my neck, and have been putting it on when passing others, I have observed that most outdoor goers don’t do the same. When the proximity is too close for comfort, I politely ask, “Can you please move to the side so I may pass.” I’ve only gotten the eye-roll once, at which point, I conveniently fibbed, “My dog is not so friendly.” That was all I could come up with in the moment of being perplexed. Since then, I have learned to simply ask and wait until they move. My hope is that the science will eventually and conclusively demonstrate that mask-wearing outdoors is unnecessary. Time will tell.
What to do when a client or colleague wants to shake your hand
When coronavirus was not yet a pandemic and had not yet hit the East Coast, I found myself not wanting to shake hands. While visiting a business establishment, a gentleman extended his hand to me. I said, “I’d be happy to elbow bump, but with this virus going around, I’m keeping my hands to myself.” The man laughed and went along with me because I was making light of things. Early on, I found this approach to work well. However, since the six-foot distancing recommendation has been in place, I have not been in the company of anyone who might want to shake my hand. However, I will need to decide what to do once we do resume mingling in groups. Fortunately, others have been thinking about handshaking and alternatives. Check out these thoughts:
- Stop shaking hands. Do this instead. – CNN Travel
- 14 ways to greet someone that don’t involve shaking hands – Mashable (hilarious)
- Here are some handshake alternatives, as suggested by our readers – National Geographic
- 5 alternatives to the traditional handshake – American Lung Association
Connecting new procedures with established values
“Be intentional about drawing the connection between new procedures and established values,” said Renee Branson, resilience expert and founder of RB Consulting. “This is an opportunity to show integrity through lived values.”
Branson explains that when we are experiencing crisis, challenge, or change, we can sometimes forget our core values. We react out of fear or we get so consumed by a “next normal” that we forget we can find ways to live our values through the expression of these new procedures. Equal to the statement, “We value respect and collegiality” is the statement, “I will take care of my colleagues by wearing a mask/following hallway signs, etc.” Branson concluded that when we connect new routines to established values, those new routines feel less foreign and more grounded in culture.
For more coronavirus resources, please visit our Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis & PR Resource Center.