Published on April 16, 2020

Times of crisis can provide stark reminders of the importance of language and communication. At a moment in time when the majority of us are – to varying degrees – practicing social isolation in an attempt to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading, how we communicate about the experience can help shape our understanding, behaviour, and attitudes towards the crisis.

“We are not stuck at home; we are safe at home”

This saying has become a sort of meme in the age of COVID-19, but it’s a poignant example of how vocabulary frames our experiences and understanding. While many of us do feel depressed about being isolated at home, not being able to socialize with our friends and family, and the uncertainty that comes with the crisis, seeing the privilege of security and safety that our homes provide can help change our perspective on the situation. If we’re “stuck,” we remove our agency, placing ourselves in forced confinement. But if we’re “safe,” we are reminded of our privilege – one that many communities and people do not have – and that we actively choose safety over endangering ourselves and our neighbours.

The virus isn’t spread; people spread the virus

Many stories position the novel coronavirus as an intentional, dangerous pathogen, seeking out new hosts in an effort to reproduce. In fact, our understanding of viruses is shaped by this framing. But by granting the agency to the virus, this anthropomorphism removes our own, taking away own our responsibility. When we talk about transmission, then, we should use the active, rather than passive, voice (people transmit the virus by … vs. the virus is transmitted by) to emphasize our role in the transmission and, more importantly, our role in limiting the virus’ spread.

“You” or “We” are the people that spread the virus

As I was coming up with this post, I ran across an Twitter* thread, by Dr. Suzanne Wertheim of Worthwhile Consulting which confirmed and amplified some of my original thinking, and extended it beyond the passive and active voice to the choice of subjects.

Instead of positioning the agents as a third party, Wertheim suggests, use “we” and “you” in order to emphasize the reader’s (or listener’s) role in spreading the virus. This choice of language creates a direct link between the audience’s behaviour and the consequences for society, and makes it more likely that we will act in a way that is socially responsible.

These three small linguistic choices show how language imparts agency, and by doing so, can make a world of difference in how we talk about and understand the COVID-19 crisis and enable us to fight it.

*Her Twitter thread has now turned into a LinkedIn article, available here.