On being … more than just a turn of phrase

By Ingrid Sapona

I often wonder how certain phrases catch hold. One of the key phrases of the moment, of course, is “social distancing”. Maybe it’s because each 24-hour period seems like a decade these days, but I don’t remember where or when that phrase originated. It just sort of popped up and is now part of everyone’s daily lexicon.

I realize that phrases catch on because they’re a clever, abbreviated way of referencing an idea or phenomenon. Here, the phrase relates to the idea that you can decrease the chances of catching – or spreading – COVID-19 if you put some physical space between yourself and others. But, at a time when there’s so much division in the world, I think the phrase subtly stigmatizes others. If you think I’m reading too much into it – ask yourself why Trump likes calling it the “China virus”, and why the World Health Organization early on began referring to it as COVID-19 specifically so that it doesn’t become associated with a place.

Jamil Zaki, a Stanford psychologist, has come up with a morepositive phrase that I wish would catch on: distant socializing.I prefer that phrase because it stresses the very human need we all have to maintain a social connection – especially during this extraordinary time – while still reminding us to keep a distance. I know some academics are talkingabout shifting to this phrase and I sincerely hope you’ll join me in using it instead of social distancing. 

Though it’ll remain to be seen how effective distant socializing is in terms of stopping the spread (here too there’s a pop phrase that’s caught on: “flattening the curve”), but here in Canada, the attitude toward keeping one’s distance seems positive. I think that’s because there’s a very strong sense of social responsibility. The belief that we’re all in this together is the approach Canadian leaders have taken toward both combatting the virus and toward addressing the economic crisis.

The clearest example of this came the other day in questions the press put to different Canadian officials after they announced a sweeping financial aid package. Though many of the details had yet to be ironed out, the package includes the promise of monthly relief payments for four months for workers who have lost their jobs or who are unable to go to work. Reporters immediately seized on that time frame and asked if that means that’s how long the government thinks this crisis will last. The Prime Minister and his cabinet members’ response was simple and direct: how long this lasts rests, in large part, on how well we all do heeding the advice and doing our part.

Here’s what he said on March 24, “The duration of this crisis will be determined by the choices we make right now. By decisions we take every single day. So, if you want things to get back to normal, do your part. Stay home … This is serious. The decisions you make have serious consequences not just on your community, but on the entire country. So do your part. That’s how we will keep each other safe.” I love the stress on doing this for others, not just for your own wellbeing.

In a subsequent press conference, the Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland made essentially the same point in another, more empathetic way. She commented that she understands that when you feel trapped at home, or if you’re out of work because of this, you can feel powerless. But, she said, went on to say, that we each have to do these individual things and that in doing so, we are powerful and so we should feel hopeful. An inspiring way to re-phrase things, don’t you think?

The only thing I feel certain about these days is that truly no one knows how long this will last. But, my hope is that you continue to feel powerful and hopeful as you practice distant socializing…

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


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