Words matter! Social versus spatial distancing

“Social distancing” is a term that most of us have not used or given it a second thought until recently. Nowadays, it seems every second phrase we use or hear is that. Social distancing during shopping. Social distancing while we stroll through a forest. Social distancing in everything. It has become such a common term to use that many of us might not even given a second thought about what exactly the “social” part of the phrase means or refers to.

We recently published an editorial by Thomas Abel and David McQueen on the need to emphasise spatial instead of social distancing and to promote social closeness.

Thomas Abel summarises the idea behind it as follows:

“Our short text published today in IJPH (Abel and McQueen, IJPH 2020) was meant to raise awareness the way we choose to use words in our public health efforts. While there is growing discontent with the notion of “social distancing” the search for more appropriate terms has just started. What in the end will be the best term may need more thinking and discussion. What matters is that “words matter”! We might expect all experts to understand that. And, in particular, those communicating with the public need to be even more careful with the words they choose.

Just as epidemiologists try to be careful, precise and systematic in choosing and naming the variables for their models, those writing or talking about what to do to stop the COVID-19 virus need to be careful and systematic in choosing the words for their messages!  Common sense is not enough – public health and linguistic communication skills are needed.”

Inspired from this editorial, we asked our followers in twitter the following question:

We got a few interesting replies. Some users informed us about different terms used in different countries, for instance Finland…

…and Italy

A follower expressed concern about the nature of the term “social distancing”

While others raised issues about what the term might means for people in different situations

or raised concerns about consequences for health outcomes

We also got a useful suggestion!

Let’s keep the discussion going! How is “social distancing” interpreted where you are? Are there any other terms used locally? How can we promote social closeness?

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