How the pandemic has changed the way we greet each other

How the pandemic has changed the way we greet each other

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson greeted each other with waves and thumbs-up this week. Even the elbow bump with which Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders opened their mid-March debate is a thing of the past. Forget handshakes or hugs. And 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.

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).”

By Deborah Tannen, linguistics professor at Georgetown University 

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