29th May 2020
3 Min Read

Frontline first. Why it’s time to break the language barrier

Elle Bradley-Cox
Elle Bradley-Cox
IC & Engagement

Hubby. Slit. Summons. Ask me which words I don’t like, and these three spring immediately to mind.

Another one is narrative. If any career was guaranteed to fleck me with liberal spatterings of the word narrative, it’s mine. People in journalism, TV, PR and other comms love that word. I hate it because … what does it mean?

Obviously I know what it means. And even if I didn’t, I’ve got Google, like everyone else. But that’s the point, isn’t it? We’ve all got Google. And before we had Google, dictionaries weren’t that tricky to find and use. But we don’t want to look things up all the time. We want to be excited by the things we read. We want to be moved, inspired, fascinated, educated, angered and amused. We don’t want to have to stop, work out what the writer might mean, tap into Google or flick through a dictionary, before we go back to being moved, inspired, fascinated, educated, angered or amused. Well, maybe we do if we’re reading poetry. But I’m not even sure about that.

"We want to be moved, inspired, fascinated, educated, angered and amused."

I’m spending too much time fantasising about a post lockdown world where ‘narrative’ and other largely meaningless words fade from our everyday lives. Like many a quarantine fantasy, it’s never going to happen. But shush: it’s getting me through this.

If I stumble across a mention of Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 surrealist film collaboration between Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dali, I instantly picture a gazillion pretentious film students staring at it, like I did, all earnest shoes and eagerness to be impressed. Mostly, I remember the bit with the eyeball being sliced by a razor blade, but there’s also the fundamental point that it’s a film of loosely connected scenes with no conventional plot.

As any beardy film lecturer will tell you, even when we know the film doesn’t have a ‘proper’ story, our brains try to join the dots. We try to create a narrative in the background, looking for connections between the scenes, and attempting to making sense of what we’re seeing (hands crawling with ants and a very non-contemporary fascination with armpit hair).

We’re hard-wired to create stories. Stories are universal across all cultures and there are dozens of studies that prove, like the film students gawping at Un Chien Andalou, that we’ll make stories where there are none.

If you want to study the anthropological basis for storytelling, knock yourself out. There’s reams of that stuff out there.

My own interests are less cerebral and more collaborative. Here’s why: what’s been the warm heart of this pandemic?

Partly it’s been the applause for the NHS. We all know a brave, blue-clad health worker. They’re members of our family. They were at the birth of our child – and held him before we did. They lent an arm to our grandmother, toddling her down the endless hospital corridors to the next test, and the next one.

But the real story has been Captain Tom. We’re all obsessed with the war hero showing us shallow, callow whippersnappers under 80 years old that this generation still has something to teach us about courage and community.

Because this story gives us a focus and a role model that we can all understand. It gathers up all the other stories we’ve spun around Britain, including blackouts and the Blitz, Dunkirk and D-Day, Dad’s army and the home front. And it catapaults those decades of shorthand into our digital Covoid world like a guiding star.

"In a world that was whirring with operational comms (20-second hand-washing, two-metre distancing) we needed a story."

The rights and wrongs of an almost-centenarian shuffling round his care home garden to raise cash for the NHS is immaterial. In a world that was whirring with operational comms (20-second hand-washing, two-metre distancing) we needed a story.

We’ve also embraced dozens of other stories, in fuzzy, laggy little squares on Teams and Zoom. We’ve noticed the poster in our colleague’s spare bedroom, the way the morning light hits the boss’s kitchen table, and, of course, children and pets noisily clambering all over a work-life boundary that’s invisible to them.

And that’s where my post-quarantine fantasy lives. We know damn well we’re not all in this together. If you’re even in a Teams meeting, you’re doing all right. Is your lockdown life about gardens and online wine-tasting sessions, or PPE and virus testing?

But where we pin our respect has shifted. It’s a tiny bit embarrassing to say I’m working from home, because everyone now knows I’m a lily-livered pen-pusher. I’m not out there delivering vital supplies or saving lives – I’m indoors saving a few quid because my favourite bistro has closed.

This virus has ravaged lungs and lives around the world. Let’s not pretend this horror fact doesn’t overshadow every Pollyanna fantasy we might have about a fresh future.

"Every glimpse of our colleagues’ messy, dull, lavish, geeky and quirky home lives has revealed a little more of their stories."

But just as human nature craves stories, we also cope with hardship by looking forward to a better tomorrow. Every glimpse of our colleagues’ messy, dull, lavish, geeky and quirky home lives has revealed a little more of their stories. People have started saying how they really feel (a bit strange, thanks for asking, how about you?). Even the most uptight, private manager is forced to admit they’ve got noisy kids, needy dogs and a damp patch on the ceiling.

Everyone’s got their own future fantasy. Mine is that, outside the classroom, we stop using words like narrative and start talking about stories. Let’s stop being impressed by long words and start being impressed by genuine inclusivity.

Front-line friends have kept us going and now it’s time to do our bit. We need to start supporting and inspiring our companies and communities by sharing their stories. Forget the big words and the buzzwords – our job is to unearth true tales and drag them into the light where their heroes can tell their own stories in their own words and the rest of us can see them and be inspired.

Even those of us who don’t get sick are going to take a long time to recover from this virus. As part of that recovery, let’s make sure everyone gets support they can relate to and the chance to share their own story in their own way.

And give us all the opportunity to listen to each other’s stories and heal collectively by piecing together the random scenes until we begin to make sense of what’s happening.

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