Communication in the Time of Pandemic

Interview with Prof. Rūta Petrauskaitė


Topic: Connecting minds


What is in your opinion the major change in communication that is crucial for the relationship among people during pandemic?


The role of language, the impact of words on our mental health and well-being has always been big, however, during the lockdown it became of paramount importance since mediated communication deprived us of its non-verbal part (gestures, body language) that conveys meaning and speaker‘s intentions together with language. In face-to-face communication people behave and react differently. It is easier to interrupt, to ask questions and to correct oneself in order to avoid misunderstanding when communicating face-to-face. The lockdown left us only with audio and video connections that transfer voice modulations, intonation and facial expressions with no non-verbal cues. This has increased the importance of language.


Have you observed changes in ways how people communicate during the lockdown? If yes, what kind of changes?


Public communication, the media, became much more important in everyday life as news started having a direct influence on people’s lives and everyday activities. News portals increased their readership and naturally their influence on society. The same holds for the social media networks that serve at the same time as both the medium of communication and a source of information. All the media channels mostly play a role as content providers, nevertheless, the way they do it and the language they use is as important as the content. Language used in public communication causes our immediate emotional reactions. It affects our mood and in the long run it influences mental states and well-being in general. Most people are unaware of how language used in the media affects them so if we want to mitigate its effects, we must raise our awareness and understand what is going on. This is going to be the main issue of this interview.


Investigations on how the media affect their readers during COVID-19 have been carried out and published. One of them, called „the communication of irritation“ (https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12259/127422) presents a pilot study of headlines on the topic of COVID-19 in four Lithuanian news portals during two weeks of the first and the second quarantine in Lithuania. The study reveals the main functions of the headlines analyzed. An overall tendency was found to be that of irritation. Information in 66,1 percent of the headlines were expressed in a negative way, i.e. they were explicitly focused on dissatisfaction with the situation, feeling of insecurity and societal problems caused by COVID-19. Besides, they were formulated to highlight distrust, miscommunication and the atmosphere of fear. The other two functions had to do with providing information mixed with subjective interpretations and evaluations (31,3 percent) usually presented in a dramatic and hyperbolized expressions. Only a small part (2,6 percent) of the headlines were presented in a neutral way and provided an informative summary of the contents of the text.


Why the headlines have been chosen for the investigation?


Well, the headlines have been chosen as the object of research because of their visibility and readability. As some previous research shows most readers confine themselves to the headlines and never read texts under them. Thus, headlines became a kind of autonomous texts but because of that the negative impact of the language of news is even bigger. News articles usually are more neutral, they provide a more detailed information that is usually contextualized, explained and relativated. Headlines, on the contrary, are meant to be scandalous, eye-catching and therefore clickable for commercial reasons. Moreover, they impose an interpretative verbal frame on uncritical readers leaving them with a ready-made negative evaluation. Even if readers are rationally aware of the bias, emotionally they respond as expected, i.e., they get irritated, depressed, etc. The same reaction can be caused by the amount of news reports. The media attention to COVID-19 was phenomenal. Information about the coronavirus accounted for almost 56 percent of the total information flow in Lithuania during the pandemic. Compared to how other events of national importance were covered in the media, the number of media reports about the new virus were more than double. Even presented in a neutral language omnipresent pandemic news have a negative impact on our mental state. According to the authors of the paper, the so-called communication of irritation goes very much against the main recommendation during the crises of public health. It suggests using neutral, calm language, analytical approach and fact-based argumentation to protect people from even bigger anxiety and psychological discomfort.


The negativism of headlines is an old, identified and well described phenomenon. It is a kind of a litmus paper to test the media for its tabloid bias. Negativism comprises a great variety of linguistic means that arouse negative personal reactions. The period of pandemic revealed one specific feature of this phenomenon, i.e., military rhetoric mostly manifested by war metaphors. Militaristic language is also well-known to linguistics; however, it acquires new forms every time it pops up in the times of crises. In the totalitarian states, e.g., in Soviet Union, military rhetoric was a stable feature of the public discourse.


What in your opinion happens when we use military terms to describe our lives?


In the language, as in the war, two opposing camps are named, two sides of barricades are constructed. This is how a complex real-life situation is oversimplified and distorted leaving just two colors – black and white – instead of all the colors of a rainbow. This is a well-known propaganda trick employed by people who pursue their own aims and try to manipulate public opinion. The overall aim of a military jargon is to arouse the sense of insecurity and to force people to take one of the two opposing sides. The language is used to construct a bipolar, confronting model of reality that eliminate doubts and discussions as well as any argumentative approaches. Such a model of reality is based on “one truth “, domination of a stronger party and a fight without any rules. In our present-day situation, it is the COVID-19 and not a group of people is said to be on the other side of the barricade, nevertheless, while using military jargon, war metaphors, we are trapped by the confrontational pattern of thought. If we repeat cliches of military language and take over stereotypes of propaganda discourse, we participate in enchanting military rhetoric. It does not matter that much whether we reproduce such a language unconsciously, being unaware of its power, its feedback in any case is negative, ranging from just a lost peace of mind to apocalyptic mood.


Bipolar way of thinking infects social relations and causes social oppositions. They manifest themselves in the social media where two camps (if not more) juxtapose their opinions concerning COVID-19 and related issues. As an outcome two streams of polarized attitudes can be observed, expressed in the most radical linguistic forms ranging from angry irritation to bullying or even virtual violence. Anyone that expresses opinion different from that in the mainstream media falls victim to name calling, labeling, ungrounded accusations expressed in a vulgar language. Such a language is meant to eliminate a certain layer of the society and marginalize them.


The “noble“ aim as declared by the holders of the “right“ opinion, i.e. to “fight disinformation“ does not excuse their linguistic means. Sneering is applied to everybody who radically disapproves of measures to deal with COVID- 19 or just has some slight doubts. It goes without saying that in such an atmosphere discussion or empathy towards fellow citizens is out of the question. The marginalized group is accused of all possible unrelated drawbacks such as illiteracy, psychological problems, complot theories, support of Russian propaganda and the like. People of the group are presented as a caricature, their statements are distorted, ungrounded conclusions are drawn from small fragments of their statements and counter arguments, if they exist at all, are only of one type, i.e. ad hominem. Moreover, monologues and comments are moved from the social into the mainstream media and cause an avalanche of anonymous hate speech comments.


The situation that you present reminds of the mechanisms described by S. Freud: splitting, when the world around is conceived as consisting only of friends and enemies, projection when someone else is accused of the unacceptable features of oneself and defense mechanisms that are typical of the most primitive psyche or circumstances of great anxiety. Such mechanisms, tendencies and situations manifested themselves during World War II but we can trace them nowadays also. How can you comment them?


It is hard to say whether the mechanisms mentioned above are just outcomes of societal crises or whether they become more expressed and more visible in crises. But it is obvious that they make crises even worse and more dangerous.


Maybe you know the way out from the present situation? How could language be used to unite instead of splitting our society?


I believe in all awareness raising habits and activities, especially when it comes to linguistic awareness. We should be more critical towards what we hear and what we read and more aware of how we use language ourselves. The power of language is huge so we should be very cautious using it. Every single word matters.


Against the background of the present-day linguistic aggression I appreciate the attempts by the Global Initiative on Psychiatry to replace just one word “social“ in the pandemic term “social distancing“ by a more suitable and less discouraging term “physical distancing“. It is meant to draw our attention to the fact that it is only physical distancing that is required, socially we should be as close as possible. That is very important not only for those who have mental or psychological problems but to all of us. □