A version of this post originally appeared in the April 30, 2020 issue with the email subject line "A matrix of coronavirus-era clichés" and a review of audience research tool SparkToro.

All writers use clichés. We all have our tricks and tropes that we fall back on, generally when there’s a deadline or stressful situation looming. When I read through a draft, I look for my most trusty cliché crutches and evaluate: is there a better way to say this? What am I really trying to say here? Sometimes I fix the cliché, and sometimes I say Fuck it. And I move on.

These days every word feels like a giant shruggie. Nothing I write is life-or-death. What meaning could I possibly make if the supposed leader of the free world is telling citizens to inject bleach?

But as a close-reader-by-trade, I’ve found myself analyzing the phrases and clichés of our current crisis. Some are quite sticky and useful, and others make me want to shitpost a response. So: my analysis, presented in the magazine trope (cliché) of the Approval Matrix.

Please note: Everything here I’ve seen in many contexts, so I’m not intending to call any individual out. Don’t be offended or self-conscious: we’re all trying our best. I’ve used some of these. We all have. You didn’t tell anyone to drink disinfectants. You’re just being a writer.

Pandemic cliche matrix

The pandemic cliché matrix, explained, in no specific order whatsoever

1. In these uncertain times - A nice way of saying “I don’t fucking know” a few weeks ago, but now the phrase is precious. Were times ever certain for you? I mean, sure I had a plan for the year that’s been shot to bits, but come to think of it: that happens every spring. Acknowledging the pandemic directly is a better look.

2. Flatten the curve - I don’t understand statistics or epidemiology, but Flatten the Curve is the most helpful phrase to understand the model of what’s happening, understand the goal of the social distancing protocol, and understand when it’s over.

3. The new normal - As anxiety-inducing as this phrase is—no one wants to go on like this forever, and no one wants our current (preventable) situation to be normalized in any way — it implies a “before” and “after” that’s useful. Sure, I want to scream “this can’t be normal!” whenever I hear it, but the construction works.

4. Social distancing - I hate social distancing. It keeps me away from my friends and family and the places that I love. It encourages xenophobic behavior and keeps me from using mass transit. But I know exactly what “social distancing” is. Again, a useful phrase that succinctly describes behavioral practice… even though Bette Midler’s ear worm has snuck into my head more than normal in the past six weeks.

5. Shelter in place - I gotta say, this phrase hasn’t stuck for me, which is why more people have been gravitating toward “stay home” (what I used to do on Friday night when I didn’t go out), “quarantine” (not actually accurate), or “social distance” (see above). Shelter in place appropriately conveyed the gravity of the situation early on in the pandemic, but it’s hard to feel like I’ve been “sheltering” for six weeks. I am still going to the grocery store, running in my neighborhood, etc. Shelter in place is clinical, dispassionate, something a governor would tell you and you’d have to listen for the good of humanity. It’s as unpleasant as… sheltering in place.

Mick Jagger dances to what I suppose is "gimme shelter" [gif]

6. “If you’re not learning X, you’re [wasting time, not making the most of it, etc.]” - I have resisted posting “fuck you” on LinkedIn every time I’ve seen a post anywhere near this effect. Don’t tell me what to do with my grief and my time. I’m already not processing my emotions properly; I don’t need to feel guilty because I’m not paying partial attention to a digital training program.

7. I need a nap - Sometimes you have nothing else to say.

8. Stay home. Save lives. - Sure! I’m fine with this. It’s descriptive. It’s functional.

9. Healthcare heroes, calling any frontline workers “heroes” - Being a healthcare worker right now must be terrifying. The accounts I read are nightmarish, and the second-hand stories I hear are horrific. However, the usage in any marketing or corporate materials most often sounds as hollow as “thoughts and prayers” after a shooting: unless this one is tied in with providing proper protective equipment and appropriate pay to healthcare, grocery, delivery and other front line workers, it rings disingenuous. (My sister is a physician; she is being asked to work without pay or proper PPE as a “hero,” which is ridiculous.) (Also the U.S. needs massive systemic healthcare reform!)

10. Anything related to the notion of “six feet” - Is it coincidental that the social distancing recommendation is the same as a common understanding for the depth of a grave? Yes. Does this mean that we should refrain from invoking connotations of burial during a pandemic? Also yes. People are dying so rapidly we aren’t able to actually bury them properly. So. Err on the side of caution.

11. That was before - The before/after narrative convention is a way of classifying events in memory, and even though our “before/after” can’t be pinpointed to a day (like 9/11), I find the construction helpful in explaining why expectations now should be radically different than they were two months ago.*

12. X in the time of coronavirus/COVID-19 - Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a really phenomenal book title and hey! Sincerest form of flattery and all that. Literary references are always welcome here, but use only if you’ve read the book. The phrase is not original, but it’s eloquent.

13. We will get through this - Unless the writer is a community leader or friend with whom I will use We without question, or unless I see that you’re actually struggling as well… use with caution. If it’s coming from a credit card company or a billionaire, I don’t want to hear it. Faux community always rankles me, now more than usual.

14. Hang in there - I feel useless and foolish every time I say this, but these phrase conveys that useless feeling fairly accurately. (Shout out to Mary Cooke at Fjorge, who brought this one up in a convo this week.)

*Can someone point me to where I originally read about people dividing their time into “before” and “after”? I do not know where someone first pointed this out to me — and Google isn’t helping me in the article search. (Next week: the failings of algorithmic memory, especially in the age of newsletters.)