Thank God for masks. No-one can see how I really feel.

(Social English in the time of the pandemic)

By Garry Littman


Social English or small talk is the stuff that glues us together as humans, whether we are friends, colleagues or even strangers.

The Great Pandemic has changed our lives and with that, the coded meaning of small talk.

What do we really mean when we say: Not too bad (pas mal)? It might mean good, okay, surviving, or pretty bad, depending on the way we say it.

Here’s a guide to the new Covid-coded language of 2020.

We’ve noted the most popular social expressions as BC (Before-Covid) and how their meanings have changed during the pandemic.


  1. BC: How are you?

Today this may mean any of the following:

Still alive?

Crazy times, eh?

Keeping it together?

How are you holding up?

Still in one piece?

When did you last breakdown and cry?

Can you breathe under that mask?

I reckon your stress levels are about 7.5 on the Richter scale and I can only see your eyes.

That is you John, isn’t it? Please blink if it is you. Don’t tell me I’ve done it again. I’m really rubbish at recognising people behind a mask.


  1. Standard responses to How are you? used to be:

BC: I’m fine thanks. Good thanks. Not too bad. Fine, what about you?

Today’s responses:

Still alive.

What a stupid question.

Thank God for masks. No-one can see how I really feel.

Could be a lot better.

Could be worse.

Let me just check. Yes, there’s a pulse. Thanks for asking.

Do you really want to know? Really?


  1. Other more aggressive greetings include:

Mask! and Whoa! This is coded language for:

No conversation under you are covered.


Back off! Do you know six feet is about two metres.

I like you, but not that much. Step back!

No mask! Serial killer!

I heard you were isolating.

Did you just sneeze?

Do you know the song by Police called ‘Don’t Stand so Close to Me’? Please step back and hum it for me.



  1. BC: You are looking well.

That’s a nice mask. Where did you get it? It matches your eyes.

I can’t really see you, but I what I can see looks kind of okay.

You look better with a mask.

You’d look better with a mask.

It is you Jean, isn’t it? Oh God, have I done it again.

I’m, sorry I think I have confused you with every other person in the park. Everyone is Zorro.

You haven’t coughed and sneezed yet. That’s good, because I am watching you very carefully. And if you do, I’ll be off faster than a herd of buffaloes.


  1. BC: See you later

This is coded language for:

Stay safe.

Wash your hands.

Don’t pick your nose.

Please don’t change your mask or I’ll never recognise you.


  1. BC: Good to see you

I can’t really see you. It is you, isn’t? Oh shit! I’ve done it again. Who the hell are you?

First. Put on your mask and step back a little. Now!

When did you last wash your hands?

I prefer two metres to 1.5 metres

You haven’t coughed or sneezed yet. But when you do…



  1. BC: How’s work?

Do you still have a job?

Have you been to the unemployment office yet?

Please don’t talk to me about Zoom.

  1. BC: Are you working from home?

It’s an oxymoron isn’t it, home + work?

Our first meeting with a divorce lawyer was on Tuesday. What about you?

Is there anything to left to watch on Netflix?

Please don’t talk to me about Zoom.



  1. BC: How were your summer holidays?

Did you spend more time in the lounge, kitchen or bathroom?

Did you go outside?

Surely, you didn’t go near an airport…

You flew. Wow! You are soooo brave.

You flew. Wow! You are soooo irresponsible.

Ha ha ha holidays… what a joke.

Is there anything left to watch on Netflix?


  1. BC: Busy?

It’s a full-time job staying alive isn’t it?

Yes, like a mouse on an exercise wheel.

Yes, I’m going mask shopping.

No please, don’t talk to me about Zoom.


Garry Littman

Garry Littman

Garry Littman est le fondateur de The Language House à Genève. The Language House propose des coachings d'anglais à Genève pour les particuliers et les entreprises, ainsi que des cours intensifs d'anglais dans les pays anglophones. Garry a été journaliste en Australie et en Asie, il a travaillé pour World Radio Switzerland.

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