And why the U.S. is so bad at it.
It’s impossible to escape the term “social distancing” these days. Since March 1st web search traffic via Google increased for the topic, and news articles about the concept along with it. Yet in the United States, there’s confusion. Most people don’t know what it is, how it works, and why we should bother (something that has also been written about extensively — in just a short week, too¹).
The problem noted by others, including the World Health Organization, is that the term “social distancing” isn’t familiar. It doesn’t make sense to us. And that makes it easy to dismiss.
This sums up the crux of the issue. U.S. policy and public health officials are failing to provide clear communication about COVID-19. Already, we’re reaping the consequences. Cases are continuing to scale, and some researchers predict we have just 18 days until we hit “peak resource use” — that is, fill all our hospital and ICU beds. That does not bode well for our ability to “flatten the curve”. Something must change.
Even simple changes can be powerful. Across the country, local government officials are taking change and order the closure of businesses. They can go further, by improving how the country communicates about COVID-19.
Let’s talk about simple ways to better communicate and nudge folks to listen.
Social Distancing vs. Physical Space
Let’s put it out there: the term social distancing is jargon. The WHO’s preferred term “physical distancing” is better, but still lacks a familiarity that resonates. A phrase like “physical space” is a concept many understand. “I need personal space.” “Give me personal space.”² This is a clear shorthand most Americans are familiar with , and using this term better conveys the desired behavior. Physical space — at least 6 feet. Short and sweet.
Cover Your Cough vs. Cover With Tissue
Instructing folks to cover a cough by coughing into an elbow is of course a preferred method to coughing in one’s hand. Yet, this advice lulls folks into a false sense of security. When you cough into your elbow, you’re still leaving behind germs, and you can still contribute to further spread of illness.
On the other recently-washed-for-20-seconds hand, “cover with a tissue” focuses on a behavior that better contains germs. When you cough into a tissue, respiratory droplets that spread COVID-19 get trapped on that fabric. Then, disposed! This is safer than walking with the germs on your elbow, which rubs against plenty of other surfaces as you go about your day.
But how you hold the hankie matters. Fold the tissue in half³, pinch by the very ends between your fingers, and bring to cover over your face as if putting on a mask while you cough/sneeze. This is safer than holding the tissue in front of your hand as you sneeze into it (which can result in getting snot on your hand if the tissue leaks⁴).
Shelter In Place vs. Stay At Home
A phrase used alongside social distancing is “shelter in place”. In some ways it makes sense — it’s a term many are familiar with, and associate with times of crisis and danger.
The problem is “shelter in place” communicates to the public to behave in a particular way. We’re primed and habituated to respond to a different type of crisis, like natural disasters. Pandemics require a different public response. We’re suffering the effects of this now. Panic buying, hoarding, and the “hunker down” mentality has resulted in empty supermarket shelves. We need new language to somehow convince everyone to “hold the line”, and not be the weak link in our chain of defense.
“Stay home” has emerged in New York as a preferred phrase of public officials. The messages “stay home, only go out for essentials once a week” and “limit leaving” convey the desired public behavior.
Be Better Role Models
U.S. officials struggled from the start to convey the seriousness of COVID-19 to the public. In daily official briefings, the country’s most prominent leaders violate their own suggestions of “social distancing”. They often meet in a small room instead of outdoors⁵. They cough into their hands, and then touch their faces and shake the hands of others. These behaviors, unintentional they may be, model the exact opposite behaviors they are trying to convince the public to adopt⁶.
U.S. officials must improve their own personal behaviors while to increase the effectiveness of their message.
Remember: We’re All In This Together
One bright spot in the messaging that’s come from this pandemic is the sentiment of connection and unity. A chorus of businesses, governments, and individuals have come together to chant, “We’re all in this together”. This is the hopeful and inspiring kind of communication that the public needs more of now.
We are all in this together, likely for a long haul. But we can take steps now to improve our circumstances.
Stop over-complicating. Lose the jargon. Role model safe behavior.
Stay strong, and flatten the curve.
 Now is also a time to practice “If you see something, say something.” If you know people who are not responsibly isolating, talk to the them direct (via a socially appropriate distance, of course).
 This is a good phrase for us to all practice at this moment in time.
 Folding the tissue in half protects against leaks. Pinching at the ends also helps prevent anything getting on your hands.
 This is a very poor role model for sneezing into a tissue; it is not how one should go about it.
 Ironically, there have been several press conferences in the Rose Garden, which is the ideal location. But only once officials stood further apart, and by not doing so consistently they undermined the purpose of hosting the meeting outside.
 To their credit, they do seem to be improving, though they could still greatly improve how they actually stage conferences to directly model the kind of behavior they want people to engage in.