Words matter.

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I am a words guy. And I’m getting worse.

My friends come to me for words sometimes. They are looking for the right word for a moment, for a situation. Sometimes, I confess, I inflict my struggle against imprecision on others.

I care about words because words evoke meanings in us. They trigger memories, they shape how we think about situations.

I’ve remained mostly silent about four words, but it’s time to talk.

Social. Virtual. Alone. Nuance.

We’ve been talking about social distancing, which conveys something about a gap in relationship. It feels akin to emotional distancing. But we could have been talking about physical distance, the space between bodies. We know how to work with physical distance, we work with that all the time through text and phone and FaceTime and letter-writing. We have worked with long-distance relationships for generations. But as soon as we made it social, we created a different feeling. And we got defensive.

We’ve been talking about virtual activities, a word that was related to simulation and hypothetical and games. Virtual reality is made-up, or it was for a long time. We put virtual backgrounds in our Zoom calls to hide the real background. But we could have been talking about on-line activities or mediated activities. We talk about virtual meetings and forget that these are real meetings in which real humans make actual decisions about life-changing situations happening through a variety of communication tools. We talk about virtual memorial services and forget that we are real people remembering the real death of a real person.

We’ve been talking about people dying alone. Which, before the current pandemic, happened often at the hospital and elsewhere. But we could have been talking about people dying without their family in the room. And at the same time being treasured by the people who were caring for them. I’ve watched as people have died, hand being held by a nurse. Who then, of course, walked out of the room in tears. That person wasn’t alone.

We’ve not talked about nuance. We could have talked about where masks are helpful and where they don’t matter. We could have talked about what gatherings are worst and why, and what gatherings are safest, and why. We could have been more clear. We could have been more thoughtful. We would have been more helpful.


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