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"At Face Value" - rethinking the idiom

with some help from the Pretenders -

Shut the light, go away

Full of grace, you cover your face

from the song ‘Kid’


The end of a year always puts me in self-reflective mode but particularly this year. As I spend my days helping people with this process in my work, I often pose the question “what would be an unaskable question in your team/organisation?” Now it seems I have a few of my own on the subject of faces and what our missing seeing them for most of 2020 could mean.

Age-defying faces

Sending a 12-year-old off as a first-year to secondary school was more a bitter-sweet experience than I expected. Neither of us had any tears at the school gate when he started in primary, but I was a lot closer to that this September and mainly because of the sad reality of him wearing a mask. From a social point of view, I worried how new classmates would bond, of the health impact of wearing one all day and most of all, any possible adverse learning impact. At that stage, I wasn’t even considering long-term psychological effects although I notice a Cork psychologist cautioned on possible negative developmental effects for teenagers, in particular. She rightly acknowledged this pandemic as a “trauma” event yet emphasised our innate resilience and the neuroplasticity of the brain as our “best friend”. This pandemic is going to have very different effects on children and teenagers and far more detrimental ones on some cohorts, particularly those who already needed additional support - physical, educational, behavioural or emotional.

Taking things “at face value”

Nowadays, I find myself asking how much information and instruction we accept “at face value”? i.e. what someone or something says just as it appears; believing that the way things appear is the way they are. Certainly, speaking personally, wearing a mask isn’t a straightforward signal that I necessarily accept it is highly effective for risk prevention. However, most of us willingly comply because we accept it probably does prevent infection more so than cause it. We also want to show that we are acting responsibly and in solidarity with a collective effort to reduce the virus spreading.

Now with a vaccine on the way (thank you Pfizer), I welcome NPHET’s openness to those concerned citizens who wish to question its efficacy and even, potential harm. We should question these points. It is an exercise in personal responsibility to conduct our own ‘due diligence’. Scepticism is the foundation of science after all, even if it will soon be the pharmacovigilance data rather than the clinical trials at this stage. At this juncture, I wonder if continuing to wear masks at secondary school in 2021 is a proportionate response to the remaining risk? Granted it may be too early to tell but let us at least not be afraid to ask.

Cultural Face Value

‘Saving face’ is extremely important in Eastern cultures where the advice “praise in public, criticise in private” is golden. To an extent, we wear emotional masks every day for the best reasons to perform the different roles we play. One phenomenon I notice within my restricted circles this year is that we are all much quicker to judge one another and the risks we see one other take, without necessarily knowing the full facts. Risk perception is highly subjective and also depends to a large degree on cognitive preferences. Based on our personalities, for example, we are predisposed to short term versus long term risk and subjectivity plays an important role in our risk decisions and base assumptions. Some will perceive of risk on a more situational basis while others hone in first on universal values. We may all pay a high social price, long-term, if we aren’t conscious of this and don’t refrain from labelling one another. Context is king and this public shaming aspect and its worrying implications were brought home to me on hearing (anecdotally) of one scientist saying to another - “don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone you went for a test”. Logic gets left behind when social dynamics override rational faculty.

The healing power of a human face

Our facial recognition ‘software’ is one of the most useful human tools for survival and navigating an increasingly complex world. It is the reason we ‘see’ Elvis on a slice of toast but also partly how we solve problems so effectively. Facial-emotion recognition is also an important aspect of social learning. We can tell just how sophisticated it is, when we try to get actual software to do the job for us. Poring over papers on “deep learning” and “convolutional neural networks” isn’t exactly bed-side reading. I was amazed, however, to read in a medical journal with the advent of combination and personalise medicine, the immense power of a human face. A placebo-controlled study conducted on the administration of morphine found that pain relief from the subjective effects of a human administering a saline drip was higher than the psychoactive effects of an automated morphine drip, possibly due to positive expectancy. It could be argued that pain, rather than any virus or pandemic, is the great leveller. What surprises many is that there is a substantial overlap in the neural pathways of physical and emotional pain - “there’s a thin line between love and pain” as Chrissie Hynde sings.

Own your own face

It is tempting to keep cameras off these days on remote calls but let’s do our best not to succumb. With technological advances so fast, I also wonder not only where are we to go without our faces but also where are our faces going without us? Worryingly, my brief research on facial recognition software gleaned – “emotion is applicable in many domains such as gaming, health care centres and burglary detection systems “. God did not gift me with a poker face anyway, I don’t plan to rob a bank (yet) and maybe they’re trying to replicate a human face for my future care-bot to ease my pain so I can live with that. In these extraordinary times of disconnection, let’s face-value more based on the immense good they can do to communicate empathy. Metaphorically, lets also ‘face up’ to the harsh realities that may unfold if we continue to hide from each other beyond a reasonable time-frame.

Facing going back to work

Face-to-face interaction and conversation will always be our best ‘unfair advantage’ if the robots do ever try to takeover. It is far less “I think, therefore I am” than a case of “we co-operate, therefore we think”. If any company is thinking about off-shoring knowledge jobs for 2021, think again. Micro and minute-tasks may well be the first in line and indeed platforms supporting these have surged in share value over recent months. However, for complex problems and those requiring value-based decisions, we play a high stakes game if we chunk these down or spread them across timelines. Evaluation and judgement depend on moral heuristics and this is largely a social function, most obviously so when a multi-stakeholder response is needed. Errors in judgement can occur whether we have face-to-face interaction or not due to mental shortcuts and social bias but there are far more likely to be made when facts or data are taken “out-of-context”. We withhold more when working remotely. This may include the courage to change direction at the 11th hour when a new risk presents itself. Ultimately, it is the rich socio-emotional context of face-to-face deliberations that will prevent these errors occurring, often giving us the moral courage and informal opportunity to say what everyone else is thinking but don’t express. Our ability to make value-based decisions in the first place evolved from information-rich domains of repeated face-to-face interaction. This is the setting in which our Collective IQ works best and we need to take care to preserve this, perhaps now more than ever.

Here’s hoping for a family Christmas

As Chrissie Hynde puts it - “something is lost, something is found”. Even I might spend more time looking in the mirror. I need to ask myself more questions like - am I prepared to make the case for a return to facial freedom and the right to make a risk-based decision on whether to hug my loved ones this Christmas? As the Ulster Fry parodies Johnny Mathis’ song “this comes to pass, when a mask is worn” – I don’t think so. Let’s risk manage by restricting our other interactions rather than ruling out hugs for those who need them most.

Think4Purpose is an Irish-owned organisational development and executive coaching company. We promote independent critical and creative thinking through action-based learning programmes. Email fiona@think4purpose.ie with any comments please and all are welcome.

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