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Recommendation: Words matter. Use clear and accurate terms that your audience will understand without further explanation. Regularly check your trusted sources for evolving terminology in this fast-changing situation.

What to say

Unsurprisingly, given the speed and severity of the coronavirus spread, governments, organizations and the public have all been grappling to adjust to new concepts and new terminology, in addition to the day to day upheavals in our lives. Terms like shielding, fomite and shelter-in-place are thrown up and often disappear before we even become certain what they mean, while others take root despite experts recommending otherwise.

We work to nail down the key terms you should be communicating, and why some involve pushing back on more common usage, whereas others should be embraced.

The term 'coronavirus'

Simplicity is the underpinning value of good public communication. In this case, it trumps scientific accuracy. If your audience knows this crisis as ‘coronavirus’ (hint: if your audience is the general public, they do) then stick with the term they will recognize and associate your message with. Coronavirus is predominantly used in the media and familiarity and harmony will provide more clarity, with currently no negative repercussions for this slight lack of scientific accuracy. Refer in general to ‘coronavirus’ but still be accurate when talking about individuals testing positive with the disease or describing the testing process. See our article for a deep dive into coronavirus naming best practice.

Naming conditions and speaking the lingo

The early phases of this pandemic suffered from people thinking it would not impact them severely, that this was just a disease for old people. If people recognize the at-risk conditions in themselves or others they know, they will be more likely to act to prevent the spread. Although ‘underlying conditions’ is commonly used, if stated in isolation, it does not help to inform an unfamiliar public as to which conditions you are referring to. Naming the actual conditions will prompt more people to be concerned and take action.

Similarly, although fomite is the correct terminology for objects or materials which are likely to carry infection, such as clothes, utensils or furniture, it is not a clear term that the general public is likely to understand. Instead use commonly understood words, and wherever possible, test to ensure that your message and terminology is being understood by your audience.

Physical distancing

In contrast to the case of coronavirus, where familiarity trumps accuracy, it is important to get this one right. Why? Because language matters here. The phrase social distancing implies cutting ourselves off from the world and our support systems, which is entirely the opposite of both the physical distancing’s directive and mental health best practices.

The World Health Organization acknowledged this when they announced an official change in the naming of their recommendation from 20 March:

[we must continue] keeping the physical distance from people so that we can prevent the virus from transferring to one another; that's absolutely essential. But it doesn't mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family… We're changing to say physical distance and that's on purpose because we want people to still remain connected.

-Dr Margaret Harris, The World Health Organization

Refer to the maintenance of a safe distance from other people outside your household (6 feet / 2 meters) as physical distancing rather than social distancing, even though the latter is currently being used much more prominently given its origins in epidemiological usage. Note that the regulations for physical distancing differ by country, state and provinces so ensure that you are relaying accurate, up-to-date guidance for your audience.

Avoid negative connotations

As previously stated, clarity is of the utmost importance with risk communications, particularly when conveying directives to the public. Using words that people have an existing association with and applying it differently can lead to mass confusion - or even panic - and if people don’t understand the actions required of them, then uptake of said actions is bound to be lower.

For example, the words ‘lockdown’ and ‘shelter-in-place’ are terms strongly associated with other catastrophic but short term events such as tornadoes or active shooter situations, particularly for US citizens. These events involve immediate danger and the need to stay hidden, which is different to what is being asked of people to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

Additionally, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has declined to use words like shelter-in-place, claiming that they cause more panic than is necessary. And as the New York Intelligencer points out:

…if things get worse and an actual shelter-in-place order could become necessary, it will only ramp up the confusion: We’re instituting a shelter-in-place order — no, but really this time.

Ambiguity and confusion are minimized by using correct, clear terminology that is free from incorrect and potentially harmful associations, and sets realistic expectations.

Be factual and correct

It is important to avoid over reassurance so that people know the stakes of their actions and the decisions of their governments, particularly as more countries begin trialling lifting some distancing protocols such as the US, Spain, Germany and others are beginning to. A great deal of caution is needed to prevent a lift in vigilance in adherence to the newest directives, and to ensure people are aware of why such decisions are being taken.

Therefore terminology such as ‘keep deaths manageable’ and ‘keep pace with our ICU capacity’ should be used when referencing updating regulations instead of ‘safely relax restrictions’. The public should understand that there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ winding down of restrictions, and that they must maintain vigilance. They must understand why certain actions are changing and why adherence to updated regulations is crucially important.

Language: Why it's so important

Language is very important in shaping behavior, particularly in these challenging times. Clarity, empathy for others and the appropriate amount of fact-based concern must be conveyed to ensure that people act as required. In addition to overcoming confusion and fear, current circumstances require the public to make personal sacrifices for the betterment of society. As Cormac Russell, a faculty member of the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University acknowledges:

This pandemic response effort requires full community investment… To achieve that, we need active solidarity, not passive compliance.

Furthermore, in an already alarming, often alienating situation, it is particularly important that correct language is used when it can have implications for mental wellbeing -  such as stating ‘physical distancing’ instead of ‘social distancing’.

A BBC poster highlights the need for solidarity through physical distancing

The last word

To ensure that your message or directive is successful, be mindful that the language you use is correct, clear and widely understood by your audience.

And as with everything related to coronavirus, be aware that best practice is constantly being updated, so check for updates from the sources you trust - including us!