Communication & Cultural Considerations with “Social Distancing”

Published date: March 26, 2020

“Social Distancing” is a term that most people have only heard in the last few weeks. During the present pandemic, health officials in many countries have told the population to practice social distancing by staying home, avoiding groups of people and stop from touching others. The term itself comes from public health research and refers to non-pharmaceutical infection control actions to limit the spread of disease.


However, the words themselves are no clear and communication needs to be clear. Particularly during a time of crisis.  In fact, The World Health Organization is officially advocating against the phrase “social distancing” and is recommending the phrase “physical distancing” instead, according to Reuters (WHO, 2020). This is a good idea as the technical term “social distancing” confuses many people. It doesn’t help that many countries even use the term differently. Let’s not even begin to look at the problem with the term “flatten the curve”.

When communicating plain English is always better.  Writing in clear and simple language is about being focused on the person. Always try to write in a clear and unambiguous style that suits your reader. Consider your reader, say what you mean, using the simplest words that work. This does not necessarily imply using simple words but using words that the reader will understand.

The words “physical distancing” are better, but it may have been better to workshop these words to make sure they are clear, unambiguous and translate into other languages well. For this reason, the slogan “stay at home” is an example of clear English.

Cultural Issues

Danielle Ompad, an Professor at New York University's School of Global Public Health says that while social distancing is very inconvenient and even frightening for the individual it's for “the greater good” and that people “have to learn how to think about the collective rather than the individual."

Thinking collectively is not a cultural norm in individualistic countries such as the USA, UK and Italy. It will come easier to societies with collective cultures (such as the UAE, China and the Philippines).

In individualistic societies such as the United States of America, emphasis is placed on personal achievements and individual rights. In contrast, in collectivist societies such as the People’s Republic of China, individuals act predominantly as members of the group. As Hofstede puts it, “this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.” (Hofstede, 1980).

Promoting social or physical distancing in and with people from collective cultures should be more effective. As the last few days have seen, promoting it in individualistic settings, requires much more work.


Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture's Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Beverly Hills CA: Sage Publications.

CNN News (2020. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/21/health/social-distancing-coronavirus-faq-wellness-trnd/index.html Accessed 24/3/20

WHO (2020)  https://futurism.com/the-byte/who-ditch-phrase-social-distancing Accessed 24/3/20

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