This article originally appeared on WARC
There are plenty of words and phrases that many of us would be happy never to hear again. Quantitative easing. Congestion charging. And for England football fans ‘penalty shoot-out’ almost always invokes fear beyond measure.
But in these unprecedented COVID-19 times, where the word unprecedented itself has got pretty tired and where the entire planet is looking to change behaviour, the phrase designed to help achieve that behaviour change has swiftly entered our collective consciousness while not necessarily gaining our collective adherence.
Social distancing is in every sense, alienating.
It’s also exhausting. Now, as restrictions begin to ease, businesses reopen and more of us return to work and find ourselves once again in closer proximity with each other, it’s going to take a concerted effort to continue to keep us apart.
Of course, it’s the right thing to do but could phrasing ‘social distancing’ in a more positive way help us stay apart and stay safe until we beat the disease?
If you’re demanding a change in behaviour in humans, it’s really best not to take one of the most essential elements of being human and then suggest you steer clear of it. That’s confusing, complicated and ultimately counter-intuitive.
Like any effective message, the phrase needs to do a few things that speak to its objective. In so doing, it is much better to deploy a phrase that tackles the objective head on. And it’s far more effective to deploy a benefit in the phrase.
Rather than issue an instruction, extend an invitation. If you can, seek simplicity in the message – where clarity meets surprise. In his novel London Fields, somewhat playfully, Martin Amis sets one of his characters off for a rug-rethink, rather than a haircut.
While the situation we’re facing today is no game, the sports pitch does offer us an analogy for how to reframe the message. Recently, Eddie Jones, the England Rugby coach, decided on a new phrase for the players that didn’t make his starting fifteen on the pitch. Rather than calling them Reserves, as is usual, he called them Finishers, because they came on for precisely that reason, to finish the game. Suddenly, same role, totally different appreciation. Nobody wants to be a Reserve. But you’d want to be a Finisher. Similarly, baseball has deployed Closers to describe pitchers who come on to see the game out.
It’s about reframing a previous negative as a positive. There are many ways to successfully meet the objective of social distancing but one of them is certainly not Don’t Stand So Close to Me, one of Sting’s lyrics when he was in the band The Police, ironically.
But if we were to simply think of the positives of not standing so close to me, or any other person for that matter – that they are to stay healthy and to help stop the spread of this awful virus? To do that we could all consider that a two metres distance between us and others is not about ‘social distance’ but instead about our own, and everyone’s, ‘safe space’.