The phone conversation was just about finished. From the other end of the line the formalities started to trickle in: “Anything else I can do for you, Sir?”, “It was a pleasure to serve you,” “Have a great rest of your day,” etc. We all know these overly polite and superficial conversations, and we roll our eyes as the customer service script keeps rolling out platitudes. Yeah, yeah.
But this time was slightly different. The lady at the other end of the line said something I couldn’t quite believe but considering the year we have had no amount of silliness can really surprise me anymore. Before we hung up, she said, “Stay safe.”
For context, this was not my mother worrying about my health, nor was it my doctor or a corona track-and-trace person inquiring about a suspected infection; it was a very regular arrand for a very standard delivery. Mundane. It had nothing to do with corona whatsoever, but she (or perhaps her bosses at this woke and caring company) felt an urge to wish me not happy birthday or happy holidays, but happy pandemic. Stay safe. It’s a dangerous world out there, and I just want you to know that our empty fake words are with you.
Gradually and surreptitiously this Orwellian transformation has begun. In June I wrote about the odd phrasings we had started to use about the pandemic:
“People treat the virus like the magic populace of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter world treat the evil wizard Lord Voldemort: by refusing to invoke his name. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named caused unspeakable dread in Harry’s world, like the virus has caused panic in ours. So we don’t mention it. We say cumbersome things like ‘in these new times’ or ‘have you celebrated the holiday differently this year,’ with the subtle emphasis indicating that we’re really asking about the pandemic. Families, writes the New York Times, are ‘adapting to their new reality.’”
Still I find myself saying things like “Well, these days,” clearly invoking the virus and the routines we’ve lost, but refusing to speak its name or the horrors our political overlords unleashed in response.
Here, then, is the next step in our catastrophic battle against the pandemic: empty words spoken to a stranger, wishing the virus away. May the force be with you.
Only a few years ago “Slacktivism” was the word people derogatorily used for keyboard warriors whose political activism reached all the way from the living room to their Facebook accounts. Angrily broadcasting their meaningless opinion on some current topic through the witless wonders of social media, they were satisfied with a job well done. Campaigners and protesters of ages past knew nothing about how to parade your opinions around.
We’ve now gone one step further: slapping encouraging messages at the end of every conversation ‒ like a real-life email signature turned into real-world monsters. I say “stay safe” at the end of a standard customer service phone call, and magically both me and my customer service representative are going to feel better…? Do the words, like some spell from a magic fairy tale land, protect us from Scary Covid?