Let me come right out and say it: I hate the term shelter-in-place. A lot of my emergency folks will shun me after saying it, but I can’t live a lie anymore. It’s one of those emergency terms that we use. Like the difference between warning and watch and advisory.

When I was younger (and more idealistic), I said that each time we have an emergency–even someone else’s emergency–we should take that opportunity to teach people our terms. Teachable moments, getting people into the emergency mindset and all that. What bullcrap.

How did we get so high-and-mighty and think that our terms were better than those used by the public? Why do we spill ink left, right and center trying to teach people our jargon? Because that’s what it is: jargon.

My biggest problem isn’t that people don’t understand what we’re talking about (though, admittedly, that’s a pretty big problem). My problem is that we continue to use our jargon, and then have to take time to translate it to normal people language. See Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick speaking during the Boston bomber manhunt (fast-forward to :37 seconds for the interesting part):

He says, “We’re asking people to shelter-in-place. In other words, to stay indoors, with their doors locked.” Why does he say both? Because his emergency folks are telling him that people need to shelter-in-place, and his communication folks are telling him that people need to stay inside.

And we do it over and over and over. Here’s a potentially life-saving bit of advice. And now here it is again in plain language. Why not just say it in plain language the first time?

Actor Alan Alda has a great little project about plain language that I’ve been meaning to link to forever. He wants to get people to explain science in plain, regular language. His first attempt was trying to describe what fire was, to a eleven-year-old. Can you do it? Or will you default to your science jargon?

While the project is super-duper interesting (seriously, watch the winning video), this article highlights the danger of our continuing to ignore using plain language warnings:

I probably learned the best lesson about talking in plain words from my youngest grandson. We were on vacation in the Virgin Islands, walking on a path that led to the strangest tree we had ever seen. The trunk was covered with angry looking thorns. I thought, wow, this is a great chance to talk with Matteo about how this tree might have come to look like this. So, we sat on the ground and had a wonderful exchange of ideas about evolution for 45 minutes. He was only 6 or 7, but he was taking in everything I told him.

The next day he was swimming with his cousin and asked her a question about science. She said, “Why don’t you ask your Grandpa about that?” And Matteo said, “I’m not makin’ that mistake again.”

The worst thing that can happen isn’t that people get confused by our warning jargon. It’s that they will stop listening to us! Your shelter-in-place is enough to drive people to alternate, and probably wrong advice givers!


3 thoughts on “Shelter-in-Place

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Brian!

      I’m a huge fan of the federal plain language folks. They’ve got such good information, I wish more communicators listened to them.

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