Disembodied and Defaced
The COVID-induced rise of video-conferencing and masked faces is unwittingly denying us our most fundamental tools of communication.
From 1976 to 1981, the greatest mystery on television had to do with a disembodied voice that every adolescent knew well: that of Charlie Townsend — the man who hired three crime-fighting women in Los Angeles to do his bidding, directing their weekly operations from a boxy speakerphone. The Angels, as he called them, were a hit, and introduced Americans to a new channel of female empowerment.
Throughout the show’s six-year run, we never once saw Charlie’s face. It was infuriating. And frankly, though I loved the show, Charlie was a non-entity, as far as I was concerned. I mean, how could we build any feelings for a man whose face we never saw, in spite of the fact that as humans, we evolved to connect primarily through eye contact and no fewer than forty-three facial muscles—tools we employ, often involuntarily, to communicate our emotional states , and which equally betray our attempts to lie? This is aside from all the additional cues we provide with our body language —things like hand gestures, folded arms, or the “anxious leg bounce” that so many of us do, these days, under the table. These postures communicate as much as our smiles, frowns and glares do.
Charlie denied us all of it. He was, in a very real sense, both disembodied and defaced. Which meant, by and large, he didn’t exist — at least, he wasn’t on our emotional radar.
A Workforce of Charlies
Well, five months into COVID-19, I now speak with a dozen Charlies every single day. When we began to connect through Zoom, WebEx and Microsoft Teams, I thought it was novel, and could be fun: we’d get a glimpse of our colleagues’ and clients’ private lives, in the form of the background behind their faces — their homes, and the occasional family member. Well, it never really turned out that way. In fact, from Day One, I learned that if I wanted to connect with people, not just convey instructions and review drawings, I had to repeatedly ask colleagues and clients, on a significant majority of my calls, to turn their cameras on. Sometimes, they’d oblige, in which case I’d smile, and make sure to tell them it was great to see their faces, again. And I meant it. But others refused to do so, in which case I’d attempt to cajole them into changing their minds. Depending on how well I knew them, I’d either tease them about what they were hiding, or tell them it was important for us to do our best to compensate for the distance, and that our professional culture needed to be nurtured. At least seeing one another’s faces, I told them, would provide some form of normalcy. I was half-successful. Sometimes, I’d get a raincheck promise, coupled with excuses having to do with tech, family, or homes…
I never pushed too hard.
Eventually, we each settled into a pattern, with some using video, and some opting out entirely. Today, five months in, I have had weekly or semi-weekly calls with clients and colleagues who patently refuse to turn their camera on, leading me to two reactions.
The first of these is an attempt to understand why they remain disembodied. Absent a reasonable explanation, I imagine various scenarios that could explain why they insist on acting like Charlie. Are my clients engaging in a powerplay, like a one-way mirror? Are my employees’ home ‘offices’ somehow worth hiding? Are they self-conscious? Do they not realize how unsettling it is to be on the receiving end of a de-faced video call? Are they multi-tasking, reducing the efficacy of our call? Or is it simply a lack of etiquette, like neglecting to hold a door open for the person behind you, forgetting to say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’, or staring at the floor when someone’s speaking to you?
My camera is always on, because I was taught to look people in the eye, and hold their gaze. I was taught that doing so makes the person feel heard. In fact, I go so far as to stare into the little laptop camera above my screen for at least half of each meeting — not at the screen itself — because I know that that way, the people I’m speaking to will feel I’m looking at them directly, instead of at their chins, or chests, or over their heads. Because if I look at their image (or initials or headshot) instead, then it appears to the other person or people that I am looking elsewhere, and frankly, that would be rude in real life. So I stare at a tiny blinking camera instead, frequently enough that I don’t come across as distracted, or insincere, or off-putting, even though talking into a pinhole feels decidedly odd.
Not everybody was raised to look someone else in the eye, or even think about digital etiquette. But as long as we continue to work remotely, and connect through a virtual lens, we should consider it.
Which brings me to my second reaction. I am often, frankly, offended by others insistence on remaining disembodied, and defaced. It’s hard not to take this as an insult, because the disconnect puts an enormous emotional distance between us. When we see one another’s faces, we cannot help but to bond to some degree, because it’s our evolutionary inheritance to do so. Sometimes, I see someone’s face on screen and just smile, whether or not I even like the person! It’s human nature. As the months march on, the distance between the ‘faceless’ and ‘faced’ just grows. Where cameras are consistently off, closeness and trust built pre-COVID erodes with every passing week, reducing working relationships to mere transactions. It is an enormous loss, in my view, and represents an affront to the idea that we are partners and collaborators. We cannot be so without some form of bonding; and without the benefit of seeing one another — of staring at one another’s virtual eyes, or seeing a smirk, or a look of surprise, or delight, or disbelief — then the only way to compensate is with our words; and words without visual reinforcement are hollow.
In fact, a widely published study by 3M Corporation back in 1986 looked into the human response to visual aids. It concluded several things: that presentations using visual aids were 43% more persuasive than pure-text ones; that our brains process images sixty thousand times faster than text; and that 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual. If these statistics are even remotely accurate, the denial of the visual when it is our primary means of communicating, being understood and being persuasive, is bad business.
Live, Yet Still Defaced
It’s not just on screen that the problem exists. When we are indoors anyplace other than our homes, these days, we are wearing a mask that covers half of our faces, leaving only our eyes and our words to connect with others. It’s astounding just how much of our communication is conveyed with our expressions. I only began to realize it once it became necessary to bridge the gap, expending energy in an attempt to associate the emotional context of someone’s words without the benefit of seeing their mouths, cheeks and chins. My frustration makes sense; as 19th century American philosopher, sociologist and psychologist George Herbert Mead famously said, gestures — that is, non-verbal behaviors — were how humans first communicated before developing language, and as should be no surprise, we still use gestures to ‘prime’ others, today. Non-verbal communication is a set of symbols that give our words context and meaning.
It certainly worked that way in the early days of cinema, before ‘the talkies’ came to be, as movies were called once audio soundtracks were invented. In silent films, an actor’s worth was determined by his or her ability to communicate emotions on camera, without sound. Then, a similar (if opposite) phenomenon took place decades later, in the battle for the American presidency, with the advent of a new medium — television. Television is largely what vaulted John F. Kennedy into power to the visually enamored Americans. He looked the part, no matter what he said.
Today, talking to people in masks is a bit like texting or emailing: easy to misinterpret, and difficult to fill in the ‘emotional’ gaps. Because text-based communication is so rife with risk of offending or misdirecting, emojis were invented to compensate. They have become indispensable tools most of us now use regularly, to ‘fill in the blanks’. Masked communication is essentially emoji-free texting in a live setting; it’s ‘less bad’ than disembodied video calling, because part of us is visible, but it still denies us what emojis convey: facial expressions. In fact, according to lifewire.com, nine of the ten most used emojis are facial expressions.
Of course they are.
Decades before 3M’s paper was published — before, even, the advent of the computer — a famous, universally quoted (and misquoted) study by UCLA professor and researcher Albert Mehrabian was undertaken. It concluded that just 45% of a spoken message’s impact was auditory (7% verbal — words — and 38% vocal — tone and inflection) while fully 55% of it was non-verbal, in our gestures and facial expressions.
Of course it is.
Another researcher, Ray Birdwhistell, co-founded a field of research called kinesics — the study of facial expressions and gestures, posture, gait and body movements that make up Mehrabian’s 55% of communications. He estimates that humans can recognize some 250 thousand facial expressions. It’s an ability that nature never would’ve endowed humans with, if it weren’t so central to our success as a species.
This set of phenomena also made me think about all those years I traveled monthly to places where women’s hair and faces lay hidden, primarily in the Gulf states. While the veil pre-dates Islam, many Muslim-majority nations require women to partially — or fully — cover themselves in the spirit of modesty, employing a hijab, chador, niqab, burka or another form of head and/or body covering. To someone like me, used to reading faces for emotional cues or to prime understanding, these face-obscuring fabrics are a real (if intentional) impediment.
Need another example? Sunglasses. When you’re speaking to someone whose eyes are fully hidden, do you feel as connected? Does it make you wonder where their attention is, what they’re looking at, or what they’re thinking? It’s always made me uncomfortable —as though there’s a wall between us. I now know there’s a scientific basis for that.
Well, minus the cultural overlay, the Arabian peninsula has now come to every street corner in the world. We are all now behind niqabs, of a kind — face coverings intended to foil a microscopic virus, but whose unintended outcome is to put psychological distance between us. That’s because, again, so much of our emotional connectivity comes from forty-three muscles in our faces — muscles we use to convey anger, happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, disgust, and everything else we may feel. And so we try to compensate for this ‘impoverished communication’, but in doing so, we become exhausted easily, because without the majority of our interpretive machinery, we spin the windmills of our minds in search of clues, or potential answers. Every interaction has become a game show: we need to pick between Doors A, B and C, in the hopes of winning the prize of ‘accurate inference’.
I have learned, over the past five months, that our faces matter, deeply, to our relationships, as do our bodies. So to those I work with, and those who work with anyone else, remotely, I have a few thoughts to offer:
On digital calls, turn your laptop cameras on. Not doing so is self-defeating, because it makes it more difficult for you to be understood. It also erodes your relationships, it taxes those you speak to, and it leads to less accurate, and less penetrating, communication. Meaning, you risk not being heard, and losing your audience, and their trust.
Moreover, consider proudly sharing a backdrop in your home. I can’t tell you how many work calls have started with “Where are you now?” because I have continued to travel pretty much every two weeks, since COVID-19 began, to perhaps a dozen places on the North American continent. Often, I’ll swing my laptop around and show my backdrop. At other times, one of my children will walk into view. I’ve shared a conversation about my CEO’s purpose-built summer home; my business partner’s collection of Richard Johnson photographs; people’s ever-changing hair- and beard styles, in the absence of professional grooming; co-workers’ gardens; and even a friend of mine’s choice of shower tiles (his roommate was in the living room; honestly…), among many other conversation-starters. Once, I was caught off guard when my youngest daughter handed me an unsolicited (!) glass of wine while I was on a Happy Hour call with old friends. Well, at least it wasn’t during work hours. And I’ve seen more than one client’s child wander into the room during a meeting, rapt by the screen activity and faces, and thereby drawing our focus with her whisperings, while lightening everyone’s mood in the process. In short, video cameras can lead to what I’d originally hoped it would: humanizing, culture- and closeness-building conversations that have nothing direct to do with work, per se, but everything to do with relationships.
These matter deeply — as much as anything.
When you’re on the streets, or indoors somewhere other than home, channel Charlie. No, not that one. I told you; he’s a non-entity, because of his disembodiment. Charlie Chaplin. He was the undisputed master of body language. And while we could see his face, who wasn’t distracted by his so-called toothbrush moustache, long before Hitler ruined it for the rest of us? Chaplin’s ‘stache is our mask, in a way. He primarily used his eyes and his body to communicate with the silent world. While he looked comic doing it, and while we laughed at him because of it, we all understood him. Which was the point. Channel a little bit of Charlie, and we may well be better communicators than we would be without adequately compensatory gesticulation. For that, look to the Italians. They’re masters of the pantomime, and the hand gesture. There’s even a book about it: Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture. I own it. No lie.
The chances are that our physiological disconnect will not be going away at all for a while, and may not ultimately go away completely, ever. By some reckonings, COVID-19 is here to stay, because immunity is not guaranteed; whatever immunity some develop may not even be permanent; and because herd immunity cannot be reached where the speed of information and rapid science empower us to powerfully avoid and/or fight infection, no matter how poorly an individual nation responds to its threats, and no matter how catastrophic — and needless — its casualties are. Even if life goes back to ‘normal’, which I don’t believe for a second, the skillsets you’ve learned while on-screen, or masked — those related to effective communication and relationship-building — will continue to be broadly useful for anything we do that involved other human beings.
All it takes is your willingness to embody the disembodied, and face the defaced.