Teachers wearing masks attend a meeting at Jean-Jaures elementary school in Cenon near Bordeaux, France on May 11, 2020 amid preparations to re-open primary schools.
Mehdi Fedouach/AFP via Getty Images
  • Talking loudly may spread the virus to others better than being quiet.
  • It's possible that this is part of the reason why English speakers have had higher infection rates than the Japanese. 
  • But that doesn't mean we should all go silent. 
  • Talking to others is one of the most important things you can do to maintain your mental health during the pandemic.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.


More than half a year into our global viral catastrophe, it's become clear that being within spitting distance of other people is a potentially dangerous activity.

We've seen how singing can send the coronavirus soaring into others' bodies. Shouting in bars can move the virus around among a crowd of people, too. 

In short, one of the very things that makes us human — talking to communicate our feelings and ideas — can now be considered a deadly threat, loaded up with potentially infectious virus particles.

The louder the communication, the more risky it is. Much like coughing, any kind of yelling, laughing, or singing can project infectious bits of virus into the air towards others, launching those particles further than quieter tones. 

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic went so far as to recently recommend that perhaps we should "shut up" almost entirely when out in public right now.

"It makes sense to encourage quiet talking, or even whispering" during a pandemic, epidemiologist Saskia Popescu told Insider in an email, though she stressed that being quiet should never be considered a substitute for wearing masks, socially distancing, and avoiding crowds.

But don't start shushing your neighbours. Verbal communication is a vital way to keep us healthy at an otherwise isolating time, according to linguist Deborah Tannen. We just have to do it safely. 

Speech can propel virus particles into the air that linger there for several minutes

A teacher explains mathematics during a lesson with sixth graders, who are sitting at socially-distanced desks, on the second day back at class since March (during the novel coronavirus pandemic) on May 5, 2020 in Berlin, Germany.
Christian Ender/Getty Images

Talking loudly is dangerous because it projects more spit into the air. 

When we communicate verbally, we release both large, heavy droplets and tiny aerosols of gunk that are smaller and can stay aloft longer in the air. The more forceful the spray, the likelier it is to waft over to someone else, entering their eyes, nose, or mouth.

Scientists still don't know exactly how big of a dose of the coronavirus it may take to get us sick, but it's generally accepted that the more virus we're exposed to, the more at risk we are of developing infection, and the sicker we may become.

This means that just as not all interactions carry the same amount of risk, not all talking is created equal, either. Keeping a distance from the people you're chatting with, and avoiding yelling and spitting when you converse is key, but not everyone is accustomed to this. 

As a New Yorker, Tannen says her own speech mannerisms may be especially dangerous. 

"Shorter pauses, standing closer, speaking more loudly, being more relatively direct, talking about more personal topics, getting to the point more quickly, all those things go together," the linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming book "Finding My Father," said.

"I call it a high-involvement style, that you show you're a good person by emphasizing your involvement or connection to other people, as compared to a high-considerateness style, where you show you're a good person by not imposing on other people." 

The amount of spit we swap is not just determined by volume and proximity to others. The language we speak matters too. For example, Chinese and English are generally considered more spitty by nature than, say, Japanese.

There's even been some suggestion by researchers that one of the reasons why there were no probable cases of SARS in Japan during that global outbreak in 2002 and 2003, while more than 70 people were diagnosed with the illness in the US, is because Japanese doesn't have the same forcefully-exhaled breaths in front of p's, t's, k's q's, ch's and c's that Chinese and English do.

With the novel coronavirus, too, infection rates have been impressively low in Japan, raising questions about whether the Japanese language and manners of speaking may play a role in preventing transmission.

Scientists from the National Institutes of Health and the University of Pennsylvania school of medicine recently watched as people uttered the English phrase "stay healthy," with its explosive 't' and 'th' sounds, which they hypothesised might spread virus well (confirming that suspicion in the lab would be a highly unethical form of research.)

They estimated that just a minute of loud talking generates "at least 1,000 virion-containing droplet nuclei that remain airborne for more than 8 minutes," potentially triggering coronavirus infections if they are inhaled by others. 

The atmosphere we're in when we talk is also important, as stagnant, stale air can turn speech into a "slowly descending cloud, emanating from the speaker's mouth," those same study authors said

Like every other precaution, talking softly is only one part of an interwoven system. Being around sick people, whether they speak or not, is always risky, especially when the interaction is indoors and they are just starting to get sick.

Being quiet could make large gatherings safer, but they're still not risk-free

"Trop Violans" collectif member Olivier Goudet speaks to masked protesters gathered in front of the Prefecture of Guiana in Cayenne, French Guiana on July 22, 2020, as France's South American territory is reeling from a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Jody Amiet/AFP via Getty Images

There's nothing more dangerous than being indoors, in a poorly-ventilated space, with lots of people.

Outdoor gatherings, where there's near-infinite space for virus particles to dissipate, are safer, but crowds should still try to be quiet, according to Renyi Zhang, a professor of atmospheric sciences and chemistry at Texas A&M.

If football games go on this year (at 25% capacity, with masks) at Texas A&M, he thinks trying not to yell or cheer could mitigate spread of the virus during games. 

"It's going to be hard for them to control their emotions, it's going to be hard for them to stop supporting their team," he said of the A&M fans. "Enjoy the game, but try to be as quiet as possible. I think that will help."

He, for one, won't be in the stands. 

"It's a lot safer to stay at home," he said.

Talking is still necessary, especially right now

A medical worker wearing a face mask talks on her mobile phone inside the new coronavirus intensive care unit of the Brescia Poliambulanza hospital, Lombardy, on March 17, 2020.
Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images

Being silent probably won't extinguish the virus entirely, but it could extinguish us.

"Talking to people is our fundamental way of being human, and getting through the world," Tannen said.

Talking is also largely the point of getting together face to face.

"The idea that you should not talk is ridiculous," she added. "We have enough to worry about." 

Instead, the 75 year-old's found other ways to stay safe and still communicate. When she got together recently with a friend from virus-laden Arizona, she was so cautious about sharing potentially infected air that the pair sat "significantly further than 1.8 metres apart ," she said. 

Then, they each picked up their cell phones for a socially-distanced version of a face-to-face chat.

"As long as you're 1.8 metres apart, you're wearing masks, I don't think you should worry about how much you talk, or whether your language has plosive p's or not," she said.

"What people are really looking for is this in-person experience," Zhang said of the professors, students, and colleagues who are opting for some in-person meetings. 

He said a classroom or office with a few people inside is "probably okay," and people shouldn't be worried too much about keeping their voices down very low, or whispering, which might only serve to push people closer to one another anyway. 

Silent or loud, it's going to be quite a while before we can safely gather in big groups indoors again.

Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said we should wait until a safe, effective vaccine "has been around for almost a year," enough time for most of the population to get inoculated, before we start packing into theaters unmasked again.  

"Instead of going to the theater at night and getting together with friends, we're Zooming with friends and having a lot of dinners at home," Tannen said.