Even the elbow bump, seen used by global leaders whenever they appeared with other people, and including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, is becoming a thing of the past. Forget handshakes or hugs.
Gestures aren’t the only rituals learned over a lifetime that have been adapted in mere months since the novel coronavirus began changing the world. Verbal greetings and leave-takings have evolved, too.
Until recently, we could begin a conversation with “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” and expect a perfunctory “Fine” or “Good” in response. We could start an email with “I hope this finds you well”, never expecting a comment on that hope, regardless of how well or unwell the recipient happened to be.
These greetings are what linguists call “formulaic expressions”: idiomatic phrases people say in certain circumstances without a thought to their literal meaning.
We might still be using these routinised openers if they didn’t happen to refer to health. In Myanmar, Cambodia and China, the typical greeting is “Have you eaten?” (literally, “Have you eaten rice?”); the expected reply is “Yes, I’ve eaten”.
In Java and the Philippines, the standard opener is “Where are you going?” to which the reply is “Over there”. No one (except visitors unfamiliar with the culture) interprets these greetings as literal questions.
The literal meaning of our usual openers could be casually ignored when most people’s health was likely to be fine.
If we knew that someone was sick or going through a tough time, we could change our tone and emphasis when saying “How are you?” or say something else.
Now, no one takes health for granted, and everyone is going through, at best, a tough time and possibly an awful one. That forces us to notice the meaning of the words in these greetings – and to change them.
Now it’s much more common to hear “I hope you’re managing” or “doing okay” or “hanging in there” – or any of myriad other ways of implying what a fellow linguist used parentheses to convey while preserving this familiar formulaic expression: “I hope you’re doing (as) well (as one could expect under the present circumstances).”
Changes in the ways emails open and close have been downright inspiring. The range of variations is testament to how wonderfully adaptable words can be – and how creative humans can be in adapting them. Some, for example, use synonyms to emphasise what they wish without sounding repetitive: “I hope you’re staying healthy and well.”
Others indicate they know the usual opening won’t apply – and why: “I hope you’re doing well despite these terrible times.”
I received one that acknowledged everyone is less than well but sought to reassure the receiver and sender we’re in this together: “I hope you’re doing better than just ‘hanging in there,’ but if, like me, you aren’t, I suppose that’s okay too.”
Just as greetings have taken new forms, leave-takings have too. The variations in both can be occasions for verbal play, like saying words by saying you won’t say them, as my sister recently did: “And I won’t say ‘stay healthy’, but hope you do.” Even the common closing “Take care” has morphed into “Stay safe” or “Stay safe and healthy”.
Noticing how the phrase “Take care” has been adapted to reflect our changed circumstances got me wondering whether the power of words might be harnessed to inspire change.
“Take care” and its reincarnations focus on one person’s safety and health. In March, when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared a state of national emergency under which non-essential workers would have to self-isolate, she explained: “Your job is to save lives, and you can do that by staying home.”
New Zealanders did, with the result that their country is virus-free. Adopting the closing “save lives, stay home” would reframe the reason for staying home: not so the home-bound can stay healthy and safe but to help keep others that way. People willing to risk their own health by going out might hesitate to put others at risk.
Greetings and farewells will no doubt continue to adapt as circumstances evolve because that’s the nature of language – and the way people use it. Maybe as more of us go out more often, and take part in more activities, conversations and emails will end with “Save lives, wear a mask” or “Stay safe and two metres apart.”
Or we could keep it simple and say, as a colleague recently closed an email to me, “Wash hands”.
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