Sunday, March 22, 2020


Faces are difficult.

I teach teenagers the art of public speaking. Most of them can, with prodding, master the fundamental mechanics of putting a speech together—assembling an argument, enhancing its credibility and clarity with supporting material, designing a “hook” at the beginning, and so on. Delivery of the speech is another matter. They’re perfect little chatterboxes in social situations, but when placed at the front of the room, with all eyes on them—no more eyes than they’d encounter at the lunch table, really—they often clam up and dissolve into squirming jelly.

It’s the faces, of course. The way a person narrows their eyes, a tiny flare of the nostrils, a tightening of the skin around the cheekbones—every little shift and twist conveys new information, and we’re trained from birth to recognize and react to it. And for someone who’s at a vulnerable age, terrified of the judgment of their peers, to have to deal with all of the difficult mechanics of giving a speech—and then to look up and see dozens of faces, each one projecting data with the intensity of a high-pressure fire hose—it’s often too much to bear.  No wonder they retreat behind their scripts! Much safer to smoothly read meticulously-crafted sentences off a notecard than to live in that terrifying moment of seeing and being seen!

I was a pretty decent public speaker even in adolescence, and developed rapidly once I made it an area of specialization. I’ve come to believe that may have something to do with my apparent position on the autism spectrum. I have always had a great deal of difficulty with faces—recognizing them, correlating them with names, understanding when they send me cues that I’m being offensive. I now think that this was my superpower as a developing public speaker. I never feared to look people in the face because I was largely blind to the sentiments those faces were expressing. I could just focus on getting my message across.

And yet, I came to realize as time went by that the ultimate goal of any really good public speaker was to achieve a sense of genuine connection with the audience, and to move past the process of “performing” into one of sharing genuine meaning. At its top level, public speaking isn’t about projecting information, it’s about exchanging information. The speaker initiates the conversation, yes, but is also receiving continual nonverbal feedback from the audience. Unspoken questions are asked. The best speakers use their eyes to listen for those questions, and seek to and answer them. Audiences broadcast emotions, and the speaker seeks to surf those emotions and to guide them. The audience’s faces are both a map of the terrain the speaker is traversing and a scoreboard assessing the speaker’s performance. And the “boss mission” of public speaking is to learn to love those faces—to look people in the eye not because you have to, but because you want to, because that is what makes the experience of speaking enjoyable.

Which brings me to the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the weirdest situations I’ve faced (ahem) as a teacher.

Like thousands of other schools throughout the world, mine is moving classes online. Teachers are learning to master the use of new remote-learning technologies that allow us to teach kids who aren’t physically proximate to ourselves. There are some disciplines, particularly lecture-intensive ones, where this will probably work pretty well. Others, maybe not so much. God knows how phys ed is gonna operate.

Speech education, though, is going to a uniquely weird place.

As I write this, I’m sitting in front of the desktop computer monitor from which I will be teaching next week. The setup isn’t meaningfully different from your cell phone, I suppose; my web camera is positioned directly atop the monitor. So, when I teach, I’m going to be looking at the faces of my students on the screen, and they’ll be looking at mine, and those of their peers. But here’s the rub:  in order to maintain the appearance of eye contact, these quaran-teens will need to be looking not at the faces on the screen, but at the camera lens above them.

A paradox: the moment the speaker dares to look the listener in the eye, the listener sees the speaker look away.  After spending the first nine weeks of the semester training students to look at, and to enjoy looking at, the faces of their audience, I will now have to train them to specifically avoid that habit.

And I find myself wondering about the long-term consequences of this kind of social distance. I wonder what sort of speakers we will become if we learn that communication is the art of dodging the listener's face. I stare at the future through a glassy lens, and I worry. For all my lack of social aptitude, I have thrived in the proximity of my audience, in the realization that they are, like me, beasts of temperate flesh. I fear a world in which they devolve from that form into shapes on a screen, blobs of color in a black expanse.

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