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Communication in the time of covid-19

Yeast, Not Beans: How COVID-19 Has Changed Our Communication

Yesterday, my husband woke me early. “It’s our big date,” he said. “We’re going grocery shopping!” The local supermarket we use has established “safe hours” for particular groups; and we fit in. But our date was disastrous. Although we’ve successfully food-shopped together for 25+ years, this time we argued throughout. I had my “ah-ha” moment right after I thought angrily to myself, “can’t he communicate properly anymore?!”

The advent of COVID-19 has up-ended, changed and complicated our communication abilities, expectations and patterns. It has created not only a new vocabulary, new standards for body language, and new uses of communication technology, but new “noise” that impedes effective communication. To best understand “noise”, consider that the purpose of communication is to transmit an idea to someone else. Effective communication occurs when the idea arrives to the listener in such fashion that they understand what the speaker actually meant to communicate. “Noise” is anything which interferes in that process:

  • Actual physical noise in the environment, such as loud music, an air conditioner, a crowded room

  • Physical barriers such as standing too far away or speaking from another room

  • Hearing or speech impairments of either the speaker or the listener

  • Different or distracting speech patterns (speaker always says “ok?” after each sentence)

  • Different languages or rules of grammar or semantics (what words mean)

  • Biases held by the speaker or listener (“she’s my mother, she doesn’t know anything”)

  • Different rules about physical space and physical contact

COVID-19 has created new “noise”. The most obvious is wearing masks. Masks literally muffle what we are saying. Just before my “ah-ha” moment at the store yesterday, I asked my husband if he had picked up the yeast on our list. “What?” “The yeast.” “WHAT?” “THE YEAST!!” “I still can’t hear you. Did you say BEANS?” “Y-E-A-S-T!!” Our voices were getting louder and louder, tenser and tenser. My husband is partially hearing impaired - without being able to read my lips as I spoke, he only knew I was saying a word with a long eeeee. I was ready to kill him.

Masks create another kind of noise also. By hiding our mouths, they also hide our facial expressions. As I raised my voice to my husband, he could not see if I was smiling, nor I him. Smiles go a long way to soften what feels like aggressive or angry communication. Not only could I not see him smile, some of us experience loud voices as aggressive or rude. He thought I was being obnoxious; I thought the same of him.

It wasn’t just my husband who was, from my perspective, communicating poorly at that grocery store. I had been excited we would see other people (yess!!) and get to exchange some friendly chat with strangers or friends alike. But many of the other shoppers simply appeared sullen to me. “Why are they so rude?,” I puzzled. As we navigated our cart through a tricky new “one-way aisle” system, I could only see eyes looking at me or darting away - but with no other signs I could interpret. Crinkly “happy” eyes need to match with an upcurved smile. And if I initiated a chat with a friendly hello, shopper after shopper just flat-out ignored me. Now I realize that a muffled “hi” from 6 feet away easily evaporated in that distance. Nor could they see my facial expression.

How else has COVID-19 changed our communication patterns? From the silly to the sublime.

Vocabulary: We have adopted a new commonly understood vocabulary: zoom, social distancing, ventilator, NYPause, WFH, pulse oximeters, opening up, just for starters.

Texting: We’ve input new autotext corrections into our phones (or is that just me?) - I type in “cvd” to autocorrect to COVID-19, zm for zoom, sd for social distancing.

Greetings: We are creating new ways and expectations of text and email greeting. I routinely see “stay safe” or “be well” in emails I receive, even from strangers.

Conversations: We are, I think from my small personal sample, actually talking MORE with colleagues, friends, even family. I now have at least 3 zoom or FaceTime meetings (visual!) a week with friends or family. Pre-COVID-19, I likely would have only texted, or at most had a short phone conversation. Truth be told, for years I’ve AVOIDED phone conversations because they seem so unnecessarily looong. Now, I’m more inclined to initiate or take a call when it comes in.

Personal space: There is a rule well-known in communication theory about body language – every person has several circles of personal space which govern how close or far we stand from somebody: intimate/family, friends, business colleagues, strangers. How large or small these circles are depend on our cultural background, personal experiences, gender issues and other factors. Watch this 2-minute video for a brief commentary on personal space (I use this for sexual harassment training). When someone stands in the wrong circle – according ot our internal rule – we feel uncomfortable. The six-foot social distancing rule has thrown this deeply embedded rule into chaos. How now do we adjust our rules to interpret another person’s intentions or assumptions? (“She stands so far away, perhaps she doesn’t like me.” Or, alternatively, “he is standing much closer than 6 feet. Creepy!” Or “…hmmmm. He really likes me…..”)

Grieving: In this tragic time of untimely deaths, how do we express our grief, how do we help others grieve? Funerals have been largely banned – just last week, a large funeral in Brooklyn evoked harsh admonitory words from NYC Mayor DiBlasio. But we all need solace, which in the past has been provided by the presence of a religious figure, or family and friends, even colleagues. Without gathering in person, how do we now honor those who have passed away, and care for the survivors?

Here are some recommendations to help us cut through all of this new “noise”. (I welcome your suggestions!)

  • Enlarge your systems for emotional expression. I saw our next door neighbor’s kid, Joseph, now a college student sheltering with his mom. I adore him but couldn’t rush over to give him a hug. So I stood across the street and spread my arms wide, then blew kisses at him. He responded in kind. We used far larger, and more extended, body language than we would have used in the past. This helps overcome the noise of distance. Do the same in texting – use more emojis, which often substitute for facial expressions.

  • Use old-fashioned technologies too. Instead of emailing to a person who has lost a family member, send an actual letter. In your handwriting. This will mean a lot, even if if it just a few short words. It lasts. Send letters to parents you cannot see, send cards for important days!

  • Incorporate other communication technologies more freely. When my husband and I were shouting beans and yeast at each other, we could simply have taken our shopping list and I could have pointed to it. If you don’t want to take a small notepad with you (so 90s!), type questions out on your notes app on your phone. Incorporate other technologies into your communication

  • Use new ways to acknowledge you see somebody when you walk by. For eons, humans have used the “eyebrow lift” to indicate acknowledgement of another person. (Try it: lift your eyebrows a bit, or widen your eyes. It’s subtle but omnipresent. Think about how you feel when you walk by somebody you know and they DON’T give you that quick eyebrow lift or otherwise acknowledge you somehow. A bit hurt? Annoyed? Disparaged?) The mandatory 6 -foot distancing rule interferes with the eyebrow lift. The mask may interfere with a slight smile. So, instead, raise your hand a bit. Or tilt your head slightly. Or nod. Or, here is a radical suggestion: let’s create a new gesture indicating “hello how are you?” Any proposals? I’m going out on a limb here and will start placing my hand over my heart as I approach people I feel warmly toward (a safe 6 feet away).

I welcome your suggestions and stories. What has worked well for you? What has been a disaster? In the meantime, be well, be safe, survive and thrive.

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