Communication in times of Corona: what Rutte does that Trump doesn’t

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A week after the 9/11 attacks, a young neurologist walks the streets of Manhattan. Suddenly, a man starts zigzagging along the pavement, it comes across as panicked. Within seconds other people start to run as well. The neurologist thinks better safe than sorry, and runs after the others as fast as she can. Soon some begin to notice there’s no threat of danger, and stop running. The rest follows. The whole scene lasts a minute or so.

Contagious toilet paper

This anecdote comes from the book Getting Things Done by neurologist Tali Sharot. She explains why, in times of crisis, communication is such a sensitive topic. If a random New Yorker had started running on the street a day before 9/11, she’d have raised an eyebrow, at most. But our brain reads reality differently when under pressure. ‘Is that man over there buying two packets of toilet paper?’, ‘Well then I should buy four!’ I’ve never thought twice about a full shopping basket. Now they seem contagious. What’s going on?

Stress changes the brain

The functioning of the brain and the way you are influenced by the people around you change when under stress, says Sharot. We pick up on danger signals automatically. We also tend to interpret signals much more negatively if we’re not in a relaxed state. If asked under stress about your chances of being robbed, you’ll estimate these higher than if you were lying under a palm tree working on your tan. And we’re more prone to a negative view of things.

Reassuring words don’t work

Intuitively you might think it’s reassuring to say, ‘This too shall pass’. But reassuring words are not picked up on easily in stressful situations. (‘Yes, yes this shall pass, after the long-lasting disaster has ended!’). If someone says aforementioned platitude, we think, well that one hasn’t really gotten the message. In line with this, Trump received little positive resonance after his initial statement ‘This shall pass’.

Dutch Prime Minister Rutte was less tone-deaf with his ‘This is simply not going to blow over soon’. Our alarmed brain complies clearly with this message. We hear the speaker having the same experience as we do and therefore listen more willingly to what follows.

Two things Rutte can teach you

Reading the emotional state of your public is, in any case, a first step to finding an ear for your message. Rutte acknowledges the public by saying that this is going to last a while. And we had a hunch this was not going to be a picnic.

Secondly, Rutte brings forward experts: ‘We have the best of the world in this field’. Our alert brain likes to follow expert leads when unsure what to do by itself. It gives it a sense of control. And this opens the door to the more rational parts of our brain and makes us more receptive to instruction.

And so, science not only helps us in combatting a virus, but also in preventing panic.

Copyright: Nobbe Mieras / Translation: Isadora Goudsblom