‘Slippage, vectors, doubling down, meaningful’: Why the words used in the pandemic really matter
“There are worrying signs of “slippage” in the public’s behaviour, and this could have an impact on the spread of the coronavirus” Professor Philip Nolan, chair of Nphet’s Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group warned recently.
Prof Nolan said the plea to the public is to “pull back” and “hold on” for a few more weeks to keep the virus suppressed.
“This is not the time to relax in any way,” he explained. As cases rise again – something we all knew was coming this winter, the language used to describe the pandemic have had more of an impact than we might have realised.
‘Slippage’ is a word that give me shivers. As the relative of an addict, this is one the most dreaded word you can say to me. It implies failure, albeit temporary – and it has no place among a population who have sacrificed so much.
Now we are expected to cut down on children’s activities, yet Coppers is open. Then, we are going told to ‘double down’ after most of us have done so much. It is soul-crushing, implies guilt and there is an element of being chastised that gets people’s backs up.
Now, a new study carried out has now found that certain vocabulary should and shouldn’t be used during the pandemic. Leaders should take note.
This really matters because much of the language being used by the government, business leaders and the media to discuss the virus has politicising the issue, even if it was done inadvertently.
The result means large swaths of the population tunes out of information about the pandemic, according to Axois, at least.
The research found that the language used to talk about the virus is often too impersonal to be effective, and that a few simple wording changes can help improve the public’s perception.
Lockdowns: Survey respondents had a much more positive reaction to the term “stay-at-home order.” “Calling it a lockdown brings to mind jailing your population,” Luntz said.
Safety measures: The data shows that we have a more positive reaction when rules and regulations to address COVID-19 are called “protocols” as opposed to “mandates,” “directives,” “controls,” or “orders.”
Naming the virus: Leaders should use the word “pandemic” instead of “coronavirus,” because it helps humanize and personalize the situation. Overall, we consider a “pandemic” more “significant, serious, and scary” than “COVID-19” or “coronavirus.”
Numbers: Health experts often refer to hospitalisation rates, but this feels distant and impersonal to the average person. Instead, they should focus mostly on talking about deaths, since that’s universally understood.
Getting rid of the virus: Saying “eliminating” or “eradicating” the virus is more impactful than using “defeating” or “crushing” the virus, because war-like language can politicize the issue.
Vaccines: Emphasis on the speed of vaccine development turns the public off according to the study. People are looking for something safe, assured and effective, and framing around the warp speed of getting a vaccine out quickly risks undermines the public’s trust that the vaccine is safe
Agencies: Research shows people respond better to calling bodies “public health agencies” rather than referring to the government itself, because government often elicits feelings of bureaucracy and red tape, not personal safety.
Something that hasn’t been discussed widely enough is the differentiation between public safety and personal objectives of say, newsrooms or business leaders, when it comes to the language used.
Some newsrooms, for example, get more traffic from search results when they use the word “coronavirus” in headlines rather than “pandemic”.
We all know the word “lockdown” incites anger and frustration, something many have exploited along the way. ‘Keep your distance’ is another one that has definitely affected my children who are now afraid to show any sort of closeness to others.
“Two weeks to flatten the curve,” has become a tongue-in-cheek phrase illustrating the mistrust that was seen at the Irish government’s request back in March 2020. The public was also largely frustrated by phrases such as “a meaningful Christmas”.
I was certainly upset by the references to my children as ‘vectors’ and the recent request to avoid having them mix at activities outside school where possible is unrealistic.
Living alongside the virus
I won’t be taking my children out of their extra-curricular activities – they’ve missed out on enough. What I will be doing is taking personal responsibility from a common sense and balanced point of view.
For almost 18 months we’ve been bombarded by words and signs that have chipped away at our lives and livelihoods, creating anxiety and crippling worry. It worked as a measure of control while also selling newspapers or encouraged us to click into media.
But the long-term psychological effects of the pandemic are only now emerging – especially on the language used around our children.
We need to watch the words we use. Speaking of ‘slippage’ when it comes to the very challenge of trying to live our lives isn’t only dangerous, it’s entirely misplaced and potentially extremely triggering.