Language in the Time of Plague

“Stay safe,” the cashier at the checkout said as I was putting my groceries back in the cart and getting ready to head out.

It was a couple of weeks after Gov. Inslee had issued his stay-at-home order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I hadn’t been to the store — or anywhere, for that matter — since the day of the proclamation. Amazingly I had managed to keep my refrigerator stocked to the gills for a while, but after two weeks my supplies were dwindling and I could no longer delay a trip to the store.

I had recently begun to notice that “Stay safe” and “Stay healthy” were becoming the preferred ways to end emails between friends, but that moment at the store was the first time I had heard that spoken in real life. Along with keeping the required distance from the customer in line ahead of me, it was a clear acknowledgment of these perilous times.

My mind was still on pre-coronavirus autopilot though. In that version of the interaction the cashier would have said “Have a nice day” or something similar. It took me a couple of seconds to recalibrate and respond. The world was different now, there were new versions of the essential scripts we live by. Quick, get the updates.

“Thanks — you too!” I replied, my timing a few milliseconds off, adding my usual “See ya!” as I pushed my cart towards the exit. I smiled; this may be a different world, but we still live for our connections with others.

The scripts we all share — the blueprints that guide our interactions — exist to make sure that those connections don’t get frayed. Those blueprints are the subject of conversation analysis, a branch of linguistics and other social sciences that study human behavior. Whether it’s sharing jokes with friends, showing someone how to operate a piece of machinery, or engaging in the brief back-and-forth with the cashier at the grocery store, our verbal interactions are governed by an intricately timed choreography that all of us as members of the same community have internalized.

Stock expressions serve as road signs as we negotiate each interaction. In a setting like the grocery checkout an important marker is “Have a nice day,” a phrase spoken at the conclusion of the interaction, typically by the cashier. The timing of that phrase is very precise: it comes after the transaction is complete, your groceries are back in the cart and you’ve already taken the first steps away from the checkout area. It will feel too soon if the cashier says that if you’re still in the middle of paying, and too late if you’re already 20 feet away from the checkout.

My own response to that phrase in those cases is often a quick “You too — see ya!” Whether or not I will go on to have a nice day is immaterial; in a situation where the participants in the interaction are at best casual acquaintances and have business to transact, “Have a nice day” is nothing more than a cheerful equivalent of “Bye” or “See you later.” Nothing more, nothing less.

That does not mean that a cashier, for example, is required to close the conversation with that phrase. It does mean that if they do, the exchange will most likely follow the pattern set in the conversation’s blueprint.

So now let’s circle back to what the cashier said as I was leaving that day.

“Stay safe” was a departure from the script as I knew it. It wasn’t entirely a rewrite of that script, however; the phrase was spoken at the exact point in the interaction where the default “Have a nice day” would have been, so clearly it had replaced it, at least at that moment.

Such defaults are not changed lightly if our interactions are to continue running like well-oiled machines. There has to be a good reason if they’re overridden. That day the cashier chose to conclude the interaction not with the conventional stock expression but with a phrase whose meaning hasn’t faded yet. These are dangerous times, that choice said; be careful.

An article I read recently pointed out that our need for comfort these days is real, and it’s strong. I would add that the need for comfort is reciprocal; we need to be comforted, but we also need to comfort others, even if it’s just by altering a short phrase in a well-practiced script spoken to a customer at the grocery store checkout.

Maybe the linguist in me is reading too much into this. Maybe, but my gratitude for that moment of shared concern was very real.

Stay safe out there.

Joseph Pentheroudakis has a doctorate in linguistics. He writes from Herron Island.