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Behind the face mask hides a silver lining

July 15, 2020

Sir Desmond Swayne is a Conservative Member of the British Parliament whom you could describe as old school. He’s not a man whose name you would want to misspell, because he’s neither a swain nor a swine. More of an ass, of the pompous sort that Boris Johnson’s party used to send to parliament in their droves.

There are still a few around, though they’ve largely been replaced by people with a keener eye on the bottom line, or, should I say, their bottom line: property developers, hedge fund managers, grifters and gropers of all sizes and descriptions, but usually people who didn’t have the brains or the wit to make it to the top of their original professions. In other words, what the Earls and Viscounts who pulled the levers of the party in the days when politics was a calling rather than a means of enrichment would call the “mercantile class”.

Anyway, this chap, who really should rename himself Sir Peregrine Throwback, distinguished himself in the Commons yesterday, when he pronounced that the requirement to wear face-masks in shops was a “monstrous imposition”. To which Matt Hancock, the minister who had the floor at that time (whom, incidentally, someone I met the other day who was until recently a senior NHS manager described as “rampantly incompetent”) responded with a stream of meaningless and rather slimy blather.

I know, I shouldn’t mock. A nation gets the politicians it deserves. And no doubt Sir Desmond came up with his harrumphy intervention because he knew he would have the support of a large constituency of people who regard the requirement to cover their faces as a gross infringement of their human rights. Mostly those who haven’t witnessed large numbers of people in their death throes after being infected with COVID.

All I can say is that we’ll get used to it, because we have to get used to it, especially if a deadly cocktail of flu, COVID, bubonic plague and God knows what else hits us this winter.

All this talk of masks must elicit a knowing, albeit invisible, smile from people in some parts of the world where masks are de rigeur for different reasons. Which takes me back to something I wrote six years ago about the difficulty or otherwise of communicating with people who cover their faces for cultural or religious reasons. Here’s an extract:

For several years I’ve run management and personal development workshops in Saudi Arabia. Those of you who are familiar with the Kingdom might ask why, as a man, I am allowed to teach women in that very conservative country. The reason is that contrary to popular myth there are several workplaces where men work alongside women – the most common being hospitals.

So a couple of dozen times a year I find myself working with mixed groups. The men tend to be on one side of the room, and the women on the other. This is not a pre-ordained arrangement, just the way they feel most comfortable. Depending on the city, some or all of the women will be wearing the niqab. I don’t have the option – like the school in London, or the French state, which has legislated on the matter – to ask the women to remove their veils. I have to deal with what I see, or don’t see.

But I can see the eyes. At the beginning, it was a bit disconcerting. But over time I have acquired the ability to read much more from the eyes, from the voice and from body language than ever before. Think about it. When you watch the theatre that is human expression, the eyes are the leading player. All the other cues are the supporting cast. If you’re unable to see, then the voice takes the place of the eyes. The brain compensates for the missing input, and after a while does quite nicely without it.

The only problem I have is recognising names without a name card being next to the person. There again, there are ways around the problem. Although most of the women are wearing black abayas, each wears distinctive shoes. So I try to memorise names against shoes, as opposed to faces.

Would it be easier if faces were visible? Of course. But not so much easier that the process of teaching and interacting is seriously degraded without visual cues beyond the eyes. These days, it feels perfectly normal. In fact the women tend to be more lively and enthusiastic than many of the men. Their personalities shine through the black gauze, and working with them is often a joy. Whether this is a conscious effort on their part to transcend the limitations of appearance, I don’t know. And for my part, I can focus on the person within rather than the meta-information that comes from physical appearance.

My days of working with women with covered faces – at least in Saudi Arabia – are over, but you can probably tell from my writing at the time that it was a rewarding experience.

So the moral of this story is that there’s a silver lining for us to consider. While it might be less fun to observe Sir Desmond’s righteous indignation when half his face is obscured by a mask, if we’re no longer able to focus on Trumpian pouts, false smiles and mouths contorted by fury, perhaps we’ll come out of this pandemic with an important new skill: the ability to read eyes, listen to vocal cues and recognise the subtlety of body language.

I’m sure nobody can teach Sir Desmond anything, but the rest of us might even become better communicators thanks to the monstrous imposition.

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