by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 2
September 2020
Idea
07:00

Did we (literally) talk ourselves into a pandemic?

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

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.

Join the discussion


  • D G
    September 6, 2020
    I'm not sure if the moderator will pass this link:- https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/914446/Weekly_all_cause_mortality_surveillance_week_36_2020_report.pdf It's the latest PHE graph of all cause mortality. See how low the deaths are... Read more

  • September 5, 2020
    Is one allowed to suggest that in the absence of any hard evidence the author should go and look for some? Read more

  • September 5, 2020
    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). Read more

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