We will talk a lot of guff about 2020.
In business speak, 2020 gave birth to the catchphrase “the new normal.” Despite its prevalence, this concept doesn’t seem ground breaking. Properly interrogated, it goes no further than working from home a bit more, flying a bit less, and (ominously) “leaner” business models.
We all have the right to speak guff. Some guff sells, some is comforting, and some is just decent small talk. But there is a problem with guff that encourages us to labour on just how awful 2020 was. In finding something to talk about, we insist upon an absolute, universal trauma that must have befallen our friends in a year that was bleak for the world. How could your pandemic experience have been anything less than terrible?
Framing 2020 this way is well meaning. We are simply pointing out a fascinating thing that we have both seen. Like a child on a beach pointing at a seagull. Here, the seagull has sharp talons, so this thing is fascinating, terrifying and deeply serious. But good COVID conversations are better crafted than “Hasn’t it been a crazy year?” and “Europe! What are those politicians doing?” Such glum generalisation comes at a cost.
First, it discourages talking through moments of joy. For most lives, 2020 did not suspend all pleasure. Horror had happiness as its occasional visitor. Babies were born, relationships bloomed, and families healed old wounds, if only because loneliness demanded it. To dominate conversation with breathless condemnations of foreign politicians and rote knowledge of competing vaccines is sophisticated, but unhelpful. “Yes, South Korea’s numbers are concerning” we agree politely, while desperately wanting to mention that we’re finally talking to our mother again after a 10-year estrangement.
Second, it sidelines nuanced anguish in favour of generalised victimhood. For those of us without genuine suffering, we should resist the temporary licence to whinge about every inconvenience. “Anxiety and depression? Tell me about it! I was working from home with the kids and dodgy laptop stand for 8 weeks!” Such sentiments stand crudely next to the legitimately aggrieved – the unemployed, the sick, the separated, and the dying. “Yes, it was painful for everyone”, they say, “but please ask me about my pain.”
We should talk about 2020 like any other year – by asking, very simply: “how it was for you and why?” We can gently prod for details and emotions. We can assume our friends know that we are clever and well read on COVID policy. We can resist interjections like “Oh yes, a hard year all round!” and patiently listen for the nuances of one, single experience. The world needs some people dedicated to vaccine logistics and political accountability. The world needs more people listening to one person at a time and hearing something about their 2020 that’s never been told before.