Transforming Reality: Language, Power, and the Covid-19 Experience

It’s been almost a month since we started social distancing measures, and I feel compelled to write about the importance of accuracy in the way we speak and write about what we are experiencing during this Covid-19 pandemic. I’m not raising this issue to simply be a stickler for accuracy, although that is important. Instead, I raise this issue because language carries immense power, and in a time when much of our ability to exercise the power of choice in terms of who we see and interact with, where we go, and what we do has been swifty seized, it is essential to carefully guard the remaining power of choice that we do have. As linguist Julie Penelope once said

Language is power, in ways more literal than most people think. When we speak, we exercise the power of language to transform reality.

The way that you talk about your Covid-19 experience has the capacity to create calm by being truthful and accurate, or to create panic by being vague and inaccurate. 

If you’ve never had Covid-19 and have never been in contact with someone who has Covid-19, and you’re staying at home, you’re practicing social distancing. If you have Covid-19 and are at home, you’re practicing self-isolation. If you’ve been in contact with someone who has Covid-19, but have no symptoms yourself, and are staying home as a precaution, then you’re in quarantine.

There is a hidden power to be found in the choice of words we use to describe our experience. When we use accurate language, we remove uncertainty and fear. When we incorrectly describe our experience, we create fear unnecessarily. Our friends and family, our neighbours and communities are reading what we have to say and reacting based on the language that we use. In other words, our choice of language actually transforms the reality of our friends and family, our neighbours and communities. Following this line of thinking, you’re at least partially responsible for how these people in your social circle understand and react to the pandemic. 

So if you’ve set up a laptop at your kitchen table to work remotely, or are struggling to come up with yet another craft to occupy your kids so you can hide in the bathroom and have one blessed minute of silence all to yourself, or are thinking about lounging on the couch with a giant bag of Tostitos to re-watch the absolute train wreck that is The Tiger King, chances are high that you’re not in quarantine or in self-isolation. You’re practicing social distancing, and when you use words like self-isolation and quarantine to incorrectly describe your experience, you’re creating a reality that is unnecessarily scary. Self-isolation and quarantine are both words that carry immense weight, and with that immense weight, a connotation that creates fear.  Save those words for the people who really are experiencing self-isolation or quarantine. 

Use the power of choice that you do still have to select your words thoughtfully. Let’s create a reality that is truthful and calm, and that will, in turn, benefit our friends and families, our neighbours and communities during Covid-19.

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