Pragmatics during social distancing

By Paul Jordan, Master of Translation ANU 2012

This article, which I am writing as an exercise and not as an investigation, argues that the ordinary pragmatics of face to face interaction and cultural values are suspended or otherwise affected during the situation where face to face contact, and gestures of affection, are prohibited during the current six month period of restrictions on movement due to the COVID 19 crisis to slow the spread of the virus. I offer an effective way of coping with what others see as confinement, yet I see as professional and intellectual liberation.

The current understanding of the topic appears to be that people feel isolated without face to face contact. I argue this is because the majority of people need contact with others, not only to exchange information, but also to feel “connected”, as it appears most people cannot tolerate being alone. I wish to offer my personal perspective of autism and involuntary celibacy due to autism, to impart some information as to how to cope with this effectively. For most people, loneliness is viewed as the loss or absence of others and viewed negatively, and perhaps experienced late in life, or as a result of imprisonment. I am a practicing Catholic because of my autism and I love the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. A Dominican priest in his 40s once told me ‘you can turn loneliness into solitude’. Let’s see in this article how we go about that.

A very effective way of understanding the meanings of utterances and gestures is the Natural Semantic Metalanguage or NSM. This is taken from a previous essay I wrote.

Natural Semantic Metalanguage

The Natural Semantic Metalanguage is a system for semantic analysis based on universal human concepts. It was initiated in 1972 by Anna Wierzbicka and subsequently developed and elaborated in collaboration with Cliff Goddard. At present, it consists of 65 simple words or “semantic primitives”. These words are taken from ordinary language (cf Wierzbicka 1996:23) and are considered simple enough as to be indefinable, being the basic elements, indeed the core elements, of all languages. They also have exponents in all languages, and, therefore, can be understood innately, that is, from infancy or childhood (Wierzbicka 1996:16). The semantic primitives have syntactic properties allowing them to be combined in canonical or basic sentences in order to express meaning (Wierzbicka 1999:38).

Now, I wish to consider some examples of canonical sentences and reductive paraphrase. It would be a good idea to examine the meaning of bodily or physical gestures, precisely because they are forbidden for health reasons for the next six months. These are taken from Goddard 2010 “Semantic Analysis: A Practical Introduction”, Oxford University Press.



when two people do this, they say the same thing, not with words

they say something like this:

I think something good about you know

I do this now because I want you to know it

At the same time, I want you to know that I think like this

It is good if I can do some things with you

I feel something good because of this

It is good if two people do this at times of some kinds

In Anglo-Australian culture, men seem to shake hands more than women. We can call each line in the above explication (a) to (h). Line (f) ‘it is good if I can do some things with you’, reflects a mutual permission or agreement. In the current pathological climate, a Japanese-style bow, with the implication that the depth of the bow reflects the receiver’s status, is arguably a more hygienic greeting, although culturally bound to Japanese and to, in my experience, Roman Catholics (I am) reverencing Christ (a gesture known as a partial prostration). Because semantic primes are universal – found in all languages – and not restricted to any culture, in the interests of hygiene, if necessarily greeting others in person we will perhaps need to abandon ethnocentrism and adopt measures which prevent possible infection transmission through touching.

Another gesture which has been forbidden during this time, is the hug or embrace. I think of myself as a loving and compassionate young man. If you love somebody, you will always want to do good things for them, and want good things to happen to them. What happens when they are absent? Before addressing this, I will give the explication of hugging:

2010: 410

A hug:

when someone does this to someone else, this someone says something like this, not with words:

‘I feel something good towards you now

I want good things to happen to you

I don’t want bad things to happen to you

I want to do this to you know because I want you to know this

I want you to feel something good because of this’

For people such as autistics who are prone to anxiety, which can be expressed in NSM as perhaps “I think bad things will happen to me all the time”, a hug or cuddle releases endorphins which calm the other person down and create emotional warmth. For example, during traumatic threats of bushfires and heavy smoke this past January, I employed all the strategies of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy which I learned, including realising that negative thoughts are simply negative thoughts, but my anxiety was prolonged and could not be relieved. As a single man or lay celibate, I don’t often have access to the calming and therapeutic value of hugs, but fortunately experienced this on a day off before physical contact was recently forbidden by the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy.

This leads me to rhetorically ask why people often feel the need for the presence of others and to be comforted if they have a negative emotion. Given that contact with others has been suspended for six months, many people don’t realise, unfortunately, that what life deals out has to be accepted. Conventionally, this is a mindset arrived at after 40 or 50 years of a lifetime of marriage, career, children, grandchildren and retirement. Conversely, I, from age 26 to age 36 after ten years of a combination of psychotherapy (learning to accept thoughts and emotions, learning to take other people’s viewpoints, and remaining calm and letting emotions come and go), can perform these tasks automatically. As an involuntary celibate, and having undergone two leg operations, I am used to confinement and don’t seek the presence of another person. I have mastered how to calmly use time productively, and after 16 years, no longer drink alcohol. When there is automatic emotional regulation, our brains don’t waste energy thinking about useless things and so we need less energy. I have grown up with adults and value companionship over more impulsive behaviour.

I do not worry, as Christ teaches in Matthew 6: 25-34, because worry only shortens your life. Worrying, or catastrophising that ‘something very bad can happen to me’, is not constructive. Living and conducting intellectual work at home is a luxury that we need to appreciate and celebrate. We are safe from infection, and have the technology to write and publish materials, and earn income from publishing talks on YouTube, very quickly. We need only communicate information in writing, personal or emotional interactions should be saved for phone calls. Cultural values, such as individual autonomy in Australia, arguably disappear when we are all at home because we are members of a household. I invite verbal communication based solely on the illocutionary force of the words you speak.


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