Are You a Superspreader?


Had I been asked in 2019 to define the term, “Long-hauler”, I would have responded, “A truck driver who, while on the road, must spend at least one night in the cab of his truck or in a motel.”  I would have said that “Zooming” means quickly moving from one point to another, and WFH was an abbreviated text for “What Fu#@ing Happened?”.  In addition to everything else, COVID has impacted our vocabulary – a long-hauler is someone with long-lingering illness symptoms attributed to COVID; Zooming is a video communication practice commonly used for social and business interaction and the letters WFH mean “Work from Home”.  

Another interesting term is “Superspreader”.  Pre-Pandemic I thought it was a machine used by the agriculture industry to spread fertilizer, but COVID defined it as a highly contagious individual who can spread an infectious disease to a large number of uninfected people through a network of contacts.  As we emerge from this Pandemic we will need a different kind of Superspreader; one who will spread the emotional contagions of possibility, opportunity, and positivity.

The term “Emotional Intelligence” was popularized in 1995 by science journalist Daniel Goleman in his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence.  He defined it as an individual’s ability to identify, assess and control one’s own emotions, the emotion of others and that of groups.  His work served to highlight the important role emotions and moods play in our own performance, however even more critical is an understanding that the emotions we spread can also serve to impact the performance of others.

Emotional contagion (EC) is a social phenomenon that results from our interactions with others.  It influences not only how we feel, but how we act and behave.  It is constant and pervasive, and more often than not, we are oblivious to it.  In essence, when we serve as an EC, our emotions and related behavior serve to directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people.  Sigal Barsade, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business, has studied emotional contagion for more than 25 years. She shares, “”Not only do we mimic the feelings of others; we actually start to feel them ourselves.  When someone is happy or angry around us, we inadvertently mirror their emotion. This response is subconscious and hardwired, stemming from our basic evolutionary behavior.”

As we begin to emerge from this nightmare of a year, and bolstered by the knowledge that we each serve as an EC, why not use this information to create more positive workplaces or home environments, to enhance collaboration and to improve interpersonal relationships .  Why not sow the seeds of possibility, opportunity and hope as a positive EC superspreader?  A few steps can get you started:

  1. Take Stock – Note your own feelings, be they about your workplace, your home, or your social circle.  It’s important to remember that you may be feeding off someone else’s strong emotion, and it may be impacting your mood.

  2. Be Aware – Emotional contagion hinges on paying attention, so if something is negatively affecting you, try to get it out of your area of attention.  Likewise, if it is positive, go verbal, give it a name and call it out!  Let others know what it looks and sounds like.

  3. Be the Booster – Be the source of cheerful enthusiasm, serene warmth, gratitude, smiles, and other behaviors that evoke positive emotions.  Research has shown, such positivity can be contagious and make your workplace, your home, anywhere that you are an EC, a better and even safer place for all.  

More than anything else, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession have negatively affected many people’s mental health.  Recovery will take time and dedicated effort.  Unfortunately this will create a situation in which there will be no shortage of negative emotional contagions.  If there was ever a time we needed positive emotional superspreaders it is now.  Why not join the effort?