When I see the term ‘social distancing’ I cringe. While I am 100% in favor of #flatteningthecurve and reducing transmission as recommended by the CDC, I would love to see us shift to using #physicaldistancing instead of #socialdistancing.
As a communications expert, coach, writer, speaker, and patient advocate, I am highly aware of the importance and impact of language and the words we choose. I’ve learned to listen for the terms that resonate with my clients and the communities I work with. For example, some cancer patients detest the war terminology of ‘fighting’ or ‘battling’ cancer. Others are motivated by it. Some clients resist the idea of ‘exercise’ but are willing to find ways to be more physically active in their day.
Are We Really Distancing Socially?
We humans can be extremely creative. Scroll through any social media feed and you’ll find thousands of people discovering ways to stay connected socially in spite of being distant physically. They are meeting in groups for everything from online book readings to dance parties and musical concerts or learning how to make your own yeast starter.
Distance is defined as an amount of space between. But is there really social space between me and my friends, family, and co-workers when we connect through phone calls and video chats? Yes, there is physical distance. Yes, it is hard not to be physically with those we care about. Yes, I miss the close embrace of Argentine Tango that I’ve shared with so many wonderful dancers over the years. Being physically distant not an easy choice but science and the experts say it is our best choice right now. We may not be able to gather and socialize in person, but we are finding ways to be social while staying at home.
Does Language Really Matter?
It does to me. Stop and ask yourself, what thoughts and images cross your mind when you think about social distancing? Is it any wonder we have portions of the population resisting this idea? Who wants to feel and experience being socially distant from others? Social distance implies retreating from others, stepping back away from relationships, not engaging socially. Using an inaccurate term may be creating barriers to getting more people to adhere to the recommendations.
Years ago, I began calling on leaders in healthcare to change from using the term ‘palliative care’ to ‘supportive care services’. Why? Because palliative care has long (and wrongly) been associated only with hospice care. So many patients and caregivers avoid looking into palliative care because of this association.
Palliative care is care that has value right from diagnosis and includes a wide range of services. It can include everything from pain and side effect management to physical therapy, help with transportation to and from medical appointments, prepared meals, and more. However, the language being used to label these beneficial support services creates a barrier to patients adopting their use while supportive care more accurately and clearly describes the end result of using these services.
Using Language That Reflects the Goal
If the goal is to get as many people to buy into lowering the transmission of COVID-19 by not passing it to others and the strategy is by creating six feet of space between people, then let’s be clear that what we are being asked to do is to be physically distant.
As I said at the end of my interview on Open to Hope’s Facebook live last week on coping strategies during this time of COVID-19, “It’s not about separating socially at all. We want to connect more socially but we want to do it in creative ways so we can create physical distance without social disconnection.”
Update: The World Health Organization recently updated its language and now recommends the use of physical distancing in place of social distancing.