Although we often use the terms crisis and emergency interchangeably in casual conversation, their meanings are not identical. In this discussion, I'd like to draw a useful distinction between them, based on their dictionary definitions:
- A crisis is "an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending, especially one with a distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome." (Merriam-Webster)
- An emergency is "an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action." (Merriam-Webster)
The element that distinguishes the two is immediacy. An emergency is acute — the undesirable outcome is here, right now. Immediate action is required. A crisis may also call for action, but the purpose of the action is to prevent a possible outcome.
For example, in 1998, we lived in the context of the Year 2000 software crisis, which (for most) did not develop into an emergency.
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