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Did we (literally) talk ourselves into a pandemic?

Two women wear masks while viewing paintings at the National Portrait Gallery. Credit: Getty

September 2, 2020 - 7:00am

Could everyone just shut up, please? Not online, mind. Keep firing off those angry tweets. As for texting, email, etc those are fine too. But when it comes to actual speech, be so good as to stop flapping your gums.

It’s now pretty clear that talking — especially loud talking — helps spread the virus. Every time you speak, shout or sing, you spray droplets from your respiratory tract into the atmosphere, from where they can be inhaled by other people.

Hence, the benefit of keeping your mouth closed. Writing for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson gets some numbers from Professor Jose-Luis Jimenez — an environmental chemist:

Jimenez told me that, compared with yelling, quiet talking reduces aerosols by a factor of five; being completely silent reduces them by a factor of about 50. That means talking quietly, rather than yelling, reduces the risk of viral transmission by a degree comparable to properly wearing a mask.
- Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

Given the size of this effect, I wonder whether national differences in the volume and frequency of vocal communication help to explain variations in the spread of Covid?

I realise there’s a danger here of stereotyping entire nations, but it doesn’t take an anthropologist to detect some obvious cultural differences. If we confine our comparisons to Europe and North America, one can’t help but contrast the loud-and-proud Americans and loquacious Italians to the taciturn Nordics. Germans, too, are not given to small talk, while we Brits will say anything to fill an awkward silence.

I’ll admit I can offer no hard evidence to support these generalisations. In any case, it wouldn’t be easy to construct a robust index of national chattiness — especially one specific to the contexts in which the virus is most likely to be transmitted. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that a culture that develops in a warm or mild climate is more inclined to public conversation. One might also suppose that America — land of the free and of wide-open spaces — has not only allowed, but required, its people to speak up.

If vocal behaviour does have any bearing on the spread of Covid and severity of infection, then obviously it’s just one factor among many. But like other big national differences — for instance in the number of people who live alone or obesity levels — it’s worth bearing in mind.

When, eventually, we look back on all of this, I think we may be surprised just how little the fortunes of each nation had to do with government policy.

Of course, you may disagree — just don’t scream and shout about it.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

Has anyone studied levels of infection in Trappist monasteries?

Frederik van Beek
Frederik van Beek
3 years ago

It’s a funny thought, an ‘index of national chattiness’…. :). I have to admit that shutting up is the solution for many problems that humanity is facing.

Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago

I have heard that Brazil and Spain are the two noisiest countries, as half my family is Brazilian I find that easy to believe.

But I think the cultural difference is not just how loud people are, but also
– how much time they spend talking
– how frequently they interact with others
– size of their social circle
– concept of personal space

In a culture that values family and community (especially large extended families), people feel an obligation to maintain relationships with others.

We are rather worried about how my mother-in-law, who has been known to “lend” blank cheques to family members, will manage to avoid getting infected.

This sense of community and mutual obligation probably underlies the uneven Covid-19 infection rates amongst different groups in the UK. Although the reporting of infection and death rates has been along unfortunately racialised lines, I would very much like to know how social class affects these rates, specifically gregarious British working class vs stand-offish middle class.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
3 years ago

No, we talked ourselves into a _panic_. Quite different.

(While also destroying our great choral tradition, for absolutely no reason.)

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
3 years ago

While this may make a difference in the short term, in the long run everything will even out. If you look at deaths per million in the major European countries they are all more or less the same +/- with the exception of Germany. and ultimately Germany may end up in the same place as the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, etc…

William Harvey
William Harvey
3 years ago

Intereting how tacit acceptance of infections via aerosols has slowly crept in … despite the woefully inept WHO still not fully accepting it as a key transmission route. The scientific establishment ties itself in knots trying find different (but unplausible) scenarios for some of the high profile super spreading events. Surely it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a virus that evolved in bats , wouldn’t be tuned to spreading amongst hosts in caves (humans inside buildings) via aerosols.

Jordan Flower
Jordan Flower
3 years ago

So what you’re saying is… Italians yell too much

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
3 years ago

With Americans if that were true the entire country would have passed over by now! No apologies if you are American BTW 😉

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
3 years ago

2 articles today on same subject. This is the other one in the Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com

Olaf Felts
Olaf Felts
3 years ago

Oh dear – that it’s coming to this. Stunning.

Andrew Meffan
Andrew Meffan
3 years ago

Good stuff.

Sandy Anthony
Sandy Anthony
3 years ago

I’m reminded of all those videos on YouTube in the early days of the lockdown of Italians singing on their balconies (presumably projecting droplets across the road to their neighbours).

Nicholas Rynn
Nicholas Rynn
3 years ago

Is one allowed to suggest that in the absence of any hard evidence the author should go and look for some?

D Glover
D Glover
3 years ago

I’m not sure if the moderator will pass this link:-

https://assets.publishing.s

It’s the latest PHE graph of all cause mortality. See how low the deaths are now? Way below the expected base rate. The poor people who died in April were nearly all old, obese, or chronically sick. Many would have died soon, about now.

We’ve got a low death rate because September’s dead went a few months early. For this we trashed our economy and our education.