“Social distancing” is our new favorite buzzphrase. It refers to reducing close contact between people in the hopes of containing the spread of disease — in this case COVID-19. This term, used by epidemiologists and prominently featured in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for “community mitigation strategies,” has found its way into the 2020 lexicon.
Social distancing measures include reducing the frequency and size of large gatherings, altering schedules to reduce mixing, and limiting person-to-person interactions.
The science is certainly on the side of social distancing -– all available evidence makes clear that the practice is effective. There is absolutely no doubt that we must practice social distancing to contain and minimize the impact of this epidemic.
Yet, as lawyers, we know that the language we use matters. And, there is something eerie and disturbing about the term itself.
The Term Social Distancing Is … Well, An Oxymoron
Perhaps it bothers me that the term social distancing is an oxymoron with an overwhelmingly negative connotation, I thought.
Yet, I use oxymorons often. They rarely bother me. Terms like “amicable divorce,” “legally drunk,” “working vacation,” “exact estimate,” or “original copy” don’t bother me.
As a lawyer, I am even used to the king of all oxymorons: a “billable hour.” Let’s just say that placing a currency value on an abstract, invaluable, and relative concept of time results in unhappiness on many levels for everyone involved.
And don’t even get me started on the “reasonable attorney’s fee.” As someone who has been reviewing legal bills for the past five jobs, I can assure you: there’s nothing “reasonable” about it.
Social Distancing v. Social Distance
There is also an important distinction to be made between the term social distance and the practice of social distancing.
It turns out that the three-letter difference here makes a huge difference. It is the difference between the social science term that depicts a prejudice and the epidemiological term.
Specifically, social distance describes the distance between different groups in society, such as social class, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. In other words, it conjures to mind an outdated sexist, racist, ageist, or classist practice.
In a country where we still struggle with these issues daily and still struggle with our historical injustices, that three-letter difference just feels too close to the term that is now repeated regularly in all government communications and media.
Perhaps it’s just me …
The Term Social Distancing Is Not Informative or Actionable Enough
What bothers me most about the term social distancing is that it captures what not to do. Its emphasis is on avoiding certain actions as opposed to what to do.
This term is a little bit like a diet that only tells you what not to eat. At some point, you will get hungry and may make the wrong choices without guidance.
We all crave connecting! After all, connectedness is a basic need for human survival. In fact, isolation is a form of punishment and, in some extreme instances, such as prolonged solitary confinement, is a form of psychological torture with measurable long-term physiological effects.
While the CDC suggests considering distance or e-learning and offering video and audio events, we can do much, much more to help the public choose safer actions and stay connected during these hard times. Why not pick a term that is more informative and actionable?
Perhaps instead of social distancing, we should use another term. I suggest something like “together remotely” or “remote interacting.” In that way we can educate the public about developing new, safe habits and guide them on how to replace old, unsafe ones.
We have a multitude of technological tools and numerous communication channels available to feel connected. We can help everyone overcome the “distance” and lack of in-person interactions. We can continue connecting, collaborating, and interacting as we stay at home. And perhaps making this shift would help us avoid the negative implications on our economy.
To stop this pandemic, it’s not just the practices that we strive for that matter, it’s also how we talk about them. This is not just empty polemics; the words we use matter. They frame issues, provide guidance, and ultimately determine outcomes. Ultimately, words are the difference between the “epic win” and the “epic failure.”
We would be wise to use terminology that makes people feel comfortable, assured, and reminded of what’s available. Using the right terminology would help us adopt a growth mindset during the time of this global crisis. That way, we’ll pay attention, do the right thing, and thrive in the face of adversity.
Olga V. Mack is the CEO of Parley Pro, a next-generation contract management company that has pioneered online negotiation technology. Olga embraces legal innovation and had dedicated her career to improving and shaping the future of law. She is convinced that the legal profession will emerge even stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive than before by embracing technology. Olga is also an award-winning general counsel, operations professional, startup advisor, public speaker, adjunct professor, and entrepreneur. She founded the Women Serve on Boards movement that advocates for women to participate on corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies. She authored Get on Board: Earning Your Ticket to a Corporate Board Seat and Fundamentals of Smart Contract Security. You can follow Olga on Twitter @olgavmack.
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