Or the delicate art of contactless hands-free connection. A reflection on the world after COVID-19
By Guila-Clara Kessous, PhD, Harvard University
Edited by Kyra Johnson
As the world continues to undergo the effects of the coronavirus in all aspects of life, it becomes necessary to recognize what a post-COVID world looks like, as well as to consider it to be a sort of separator of space and time. Such a world-altering event, after all, is so extreme and drastic that it reflects an almost messianic importance.
Imagining oneself in a post-coronavirus future is already to recognize the pandemic’s role as a separator of space-time. After all, aren’t we in 2020 AD, or even 1441 A.D., 1441 Hegira, Chinese 4718, or 5780 in the Jewish calendar, to name but a few? All these calendars base their point of departure, the year 1, on a founding event which radically separates the coming era from the preceding one. Most importantly, the new era also “updates” the cultural, territorial, social, behavioural, and economic system. We now must seek out a global meaning in all civilizations, which comes from a posteriori to the event since the year zero does not exist. We therefore begin to count long after the event, which only takes on its meaning once we choose its meaning. Therefore, in the current case of COVID-19, we are still in the year zero. Let us try to see what societal norms we are radically leaving behind in order to go towards year one, Post-COVID, and what this new era of ours will potentially look like.
Turning to a New Sun
In our society prior to the coronavirus, human beings shared in the tropism—the natural turning towards an external stimulus–exhibited by many plants; we are like sunflowers, following the rays of the stimuli we have grown accustomed to in order to support our own social growth. What we are leaving to go into the Post-COVID world is above all an anthropological tropism that acted as an irresistible and unconscious force, a reflex behavior that seemed so natural to us. This behavior that seemed so natural to us and pushed us to use all of our five senses fearlessly in our relationship with others is now absent in lieu of our inability to psychically reach out. Whether they were close or unknown to us, accepting the other meant bringing them into our social “spheres”: the professional sphere, the family sphere, the personal intimate sphere. Each of these spheres has required some sort of a contact greeting. This human-to-human “recognition” seemed so natural to us–whether it was a kiss, handshake, or hug–that it had become a tropism.
We collectively failed to realize how physical contact norms may endanger us if we had to consider the other or oneself as “potentially contagious”. In the face of the virus, us metaphorical sunflowers are forced to find a new type of sun to turn to in order to achieve and maintain our social growth.
For example, this “new sun” is already somewhat adopted by Asian cultures, where it is custom to avoid touching each other during greetings, particularly in China, where salutations are exchanged at a distance, with heads bowed. We are therefore encouraged to follow the Chinese example in our professional spheres, where even prior to the pandemic, physical exchanges were rarely intimate, and are therefore the most appropriate type of contact greeting to undergo procedural changes in our Post-COVID Year One. The choice of the “elbow” salutation (widely remembered as the “Ebola Shake” salutation, born during the Ebola epidemic) is appropriate, and even already common, in several cultures. What does this mean in terms of anthropological tropism of finding a new stimulus in which to grow from? We would orient our physical interactions to a much more “Asian fashion”: less touching, interruptions, and emotions, and more observation, silence, and neutrality. Adopting foreign greetings may lead us to culture shock, and feelings of “Fear and Trembling” may await us in this “Asia-tization” of our methods of greeting, and perhaps even our modes of societal functioning.
Learning from Porcupines: A New “Hands Free” Connection
If we cannot enjoy our typical experiences of physical contact anymore, does this mean that we all need to find an “inner warmth” to replace what no longer comes from others? This is what philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer recommended in his famous parable of the porcupines in “Parerga and Paralipomena”, in which he used this group of animals to explain the paradox of human contact. During a frosty snowstorm, the porcupines huddled together in tight-knit groups to keep warm, but ultimately suffered from each other’s sharp prickles, since they were too close together. They were forced to find a “medium distance” where they could benefit from their collective warmth yet avoid harming others with their spikes. Schopenhauer then writes:
“Thus the need for society, born of the emptiness and monotony of their inner life, pushes people towards each other; but their many unsympathetic ways and unbearable defects scatter them again. The average distance they eventually discover and at which living together becomes possible is politeness and good manners.”
What we come to understand from this example is that, during this pandemic, we must learn how to benefit from one another’s metaphorical warmth while still keeping our distance, as the infectious disease has become our own set of sharp spines that could damage others, should we fail to maintain a proper distance. Would we have failed in the principle of “politeness” by abruptly changing our socially “average distance” into a brand-new “sanitary distance”? There are no more possible contacts to fall back on once the pandemic has passed, because it is the aggregation of the whole system that is changing. The anthropological system described by Arthur Schopenhauer assumed that groups of humans push towards each other by aggregates “born from the emptiness and monotony of their inner life”. But does this kind of emptiness still exist today? In accordance with our metaphor, the quills of porcupines have grown and become a type of interconnected network of antennas that connect without contact, as if their exchange of bodily warmth is done virtually–it is “hands-free”.
This is the basis of our real-world rapidly expanding Internet connectivity, with intelligent underground, underwater, aerial and space smart grids… 5G obliges! The interconnected system of porcupines that gathered together to keep warm symbolically evolved to become an emanation of our own individual social antennas. We each radiate our own quills that serve as a protective “crown”–which, strangely enough, looks similar to the shape of the coronavirus when viewed under an electron microscope. These antennas are also our ways of relating to each other. This explains why we are able to have hundreds of friends on Facebook without ever actually meeting them in person. In 1992, anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that 150 was the maximum number of people with whom we could maintain stable social relationships, so as not to exceed the maximum size allowed by the information processing capacity of our brain. Humans have an incredible capacity to connect, but this pandemic creates a blockage for us to demonstrate our typical human warmth. When “emptiness” no longer exists outside, it is reborn inside us via a “lack of oxytocin”, which is the hormone of love, trust and bonding created through physical contact (such as caresses, kisses, etc.). We are about to live through an incredible moment of withdrawal where our only option to remain hyper-connected is to use social media platforms, where we can engage in a sort of “hands-free” style of interaction (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and TikTok, among others). But is keeping this mode of “no contact” relationships, truly without risk of contamination? It may present a dangerous “Zoom-ification” of our world where others only appear in two dimensions, “framed” in a relationship controlled by a “power” button that you just have to press once for others to disappear.
The Return of “Courtesy”
This “love from afar” that we must now practice is reminiscent of the ballads of “courtly love” that were sung by William IX of Aquitaine “Roman de la Rose” and the troubadours (traveling poets) of the twelfth century. In this medieval context, songs describe the object of love: the rose; and the woman, the object of wooing, is far away, but one must surpass the presented obstacles in order to fulfill their conquest. In our non-medieval context: less oxytocin hormone, therefore, equates less touching, yet provides more dopamine, the hormone of success. A “setting far away”, which is the new distant location of individuals in our lives, allows us to rework the path that leads to others. This medieval approach to human connection seems very outdated.
On the contrary, the practice of working through obstacles to achieve our object of interest is anchored deep within us, in what we are desperately trying to find again during this time: a rediscovered physical closeness with our companions and an ambition to take on a brand new, albeit mysterious, future. a brand new future.
The term “courtesy” does not force us to return to feudalistic style, but allows us to rethink our “porcupine” social system on a human scale–that is to say, we must insert ourselves into metaphorical “courtyards”: small bordered spaces in which a finite number of individuals who share common values reside as a community. Taking residence in these spaces is not advocating for the return of the aristocracy, or the feudal reign of the King and his Court, but rather, it is to set up each individual to have the capacity of a “power” button; not to make others entirely disappear, but to simply make them leave their screen, like Tom Baxter in Woody Allen’s film “The Purple Rose of Cairo”. We have the ability to be aware of the collective world, thanks in particular to the analysis grid of the 17 Sustainable Development objectives adopted by the UN in 2015, and the credo of the platform of action for the coronavirus, set up in mid-March by the World Economic Forum in Davos. We know what we have to do, but we don’t do it yet… even if we hear many people say that, despite the difficulty of containment, what we will regret most is this long period of time when we could have “settled down” for a moment before returning to the frenzy of active life. This is the principle of the “JOMO” (the “Joy Of Missing Out”). This joy celebrates disconnection from an idealized world in order to concentrate on real life, on our truly important relationships without feeling fearful under the gaze of others.
Towards Optimistic Leadership
What about business in our “professional sphere”? In comparison to the familial sphere, it is not the one that is most naturally useful to society, but it is probably the one that has the most responsibilities in terms of helping everyone “hold it together”. In Latin, “Entre-prehendere” means “to take in one’s hands”, and “to take the risk” of creating something valuable that is beyond financial gain. This is where the “courtyard” that the company represents is so important since it must recreate a will to create, share, and co-construct together, and to bring water to the metaphorical mill of society so that the economy can turn. Just as an individual struggles with the idea of death at the sound of a cough, a company thinks it is finished when it sees its sales drop during the last two months. However, they are far from being finished.
Just like the individual, if companies take on the responsibility to not contaminate and not be contaminated, they enter a phase of change in accordance with what the virus has taught us: how to resist by breathing. To continue to breathe in spite of the miasma of this virus means to, against all odds, feed on the air of others and accept that it may be necessary to empty oneself of their own air so that another can feed on it.
This circulation of air must take place in a healthy environment, between healthy individuals, for a healthy purpose. The return of deconfinement in the workplace should aim to achieve this healthy system at the managerial level: leaders must regain the health of the collective through a narrative sense. Telling a story of survival is crucial in terms of resilience. And for that, the leader’s communication is essential at both the verbal and non-verbal level. When presenting content, a leader must make the choice of using positive, unifying, hope-creating words, but above all, they must be transparent with the situation, for that will make the difference. Far too many leaders would like to apply the perception of the pre-COVID to the post-COVID era by making people believe that nothing has happened. On the contrary, it is by underlining the difficulties undergone during this time of collective survival, and by detailing the different steps to follow going forwards, that unity will be able to motivate the team. This is what the “optimistic” leader should look for, to use the ideas of the famous Tal Ben Shahar, professor of “happiness” (a form of positive psychology) at Harvard University, in his book The Happiness of Being a Leader: a clever mix of optimism and realism. The leader must go beyond their bodily barriers. It is their own body, which has been denied so much in the virtual relationship, that they will have to re-inhabitat. This will show how the leader will be judged, measured, and despised, and if they can be followed. For the body does not lie and when one is the image of power in a company, it is the body that reveals its weaknesses, impostor syndrome, or megalomaniacal impulses.
Even the newly named “coronial” generation of babies coming from this era (including X Æ A-12, the aptly named newborn of Elon Musk) have a body, which is what remains to us as irreducibly fragile and therefore “human”. So let us become guards of our own body by not listening to those who want to amputate it under the narrative of reinforcing our performance with “painkillers” and “anti-epileptics” by inhibiting nerves or by cutting off our sensitivity where it hurts. In medicine, just as in business, we should be wary of symptomatic treatments that would create a Guillain-Barré syndrome, a consequential fallout suffered by many people who have been ill with corona: a loss of sensation that can lead to paralysis of the extremities (hands/feet). In a company, it is necessary to look at how the virus was experienced by all the employees, offering at all levels (from “feet” to “hands”) not only spaces for words, but real possibilities to integrate and collaborate “in the common courtyard” with real recognition–without such an approach, it would lead to a paralysis of the company’s whole collective body . “Stop applauding us and come and put your hands in the sludge instead,” a doctor said to me the other day. He didn’t necessarily mean making a medical commitment, but contributing in some way to ensuring that there is a dedication to relieving the harshness of daily life, each at one’s own level. What can be said about what awaits us in the post-COVID era is a real human question that searches for meaning and involvement at the individual level.
This shared sense that we all have within us is a voice that guarantees the survival of our species and tells us to “do and play our part” as if we are an orchestra with an infinite number of instruments. Our song would be an uproar that is certainly very powerful because of its resonant force but would have no collective melody and even less unison.
At the moment, the system of the world has just been updated and unifying platforms, such as TikTok’s viral trends, have an impressive capacity to be its own type of virus and spread the same pantomime repeated across the continents as if it is a domino effect of one following after another.The virtual spread of ideas is a unifying force that helps us expand our perception of the world as a whole. Contrastingly, however, Voltaire’s satire Candide tells us of the importance of staying in one’s own social sphere and recognizing their place in the world. After having done all kinds of pantomimes and lived in various burlesque situations whilst traveling the world, the title character comes back home and advises us that it would be best for him to simply “cultivate his garden”… not in terms of being selfishly interested only in his small plot of physical land, but to play at his level in the territorial, political, economic, and social issues–his own garden, his own yard. This is not a reflection of a post-COVID individualism, but a warning against a possible hyper-connected system that is overwhelmed by the desire to once again restore our norms of contact. The solution seems simple: does “cultivating your garden” not mean less connection and more contact with reality?
ABOUT GUILA-CLARA KESSOUS
Guila-Clara Kessous, PhD. is a research professor, a coach, and a UNESCO Artist for Peace. Recipient of a doctorate under Elie Wiesel’s direction, she is using theatrical techniques to help suffering populations (survivors of genocide and human rights violations) better express themselves and have a stronger impact on new generations. She is also certified in positive psychology by Harvard University Professor Tal Ben Shahar and accompanies people to achieve stronger resilience in times of crisis. She deals with issues of positive leadership, crisis communication, and managerial posture using theatrical techniques and role-playing. Following the coaching of suffering populations, she accompanies personalities, executive committees, senior executives, and managers in crisis contexts in France and abroad. Today, she is working with healthcare personnel, ranging from executives to nurses, to provide coaching and counseling to those serving at the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.