You’ve heard of IQ, but what’s your VQ?

You Might Not Care About Your IQ, But What About Your VQ?

As a Senior Executive or CEO, you understand the significance of having strong intellectual abilities; however, have you ever considered the impact of your Verbal Quotient (VQ)? A strong VQ is essential for clear, compelling and confident communication.

Improving Your VQ by Recognizing ‘Verbal Blind Spots’:

Your VQ is defined by your ability to articulately use and string together words, phrases and other rhetorical devices to speak both lucidly and without effort. You’ve likely experienced this when in a state of ‘flow’ where you are speaking from experience – the words seemed to flow effortlessly whilst your listeners were swept along with you.

In comparison, Verbal Blind Spots are words or phrases which you have come across multiple times but are unable to either use or define accurately. It doesn’t mean you don’t use those words, instead you often misuse them or can’t explain what they mean to someone else.

These blind spots can hinder your ability to comprehend new information, disrupting both your learning and your wider communication skills. Improving your VQ is therefore vital for overcoming these challenges.

An Example of a Verbal Blind Spot:

In one of my books I wrote:

“You should always avoid engaging in duportism when speaking. Should you duport at any time during your speech, you will make a fool of yourself. However, as this is quite obvious I shall make no further mention of the act.”

Reading that above statement probably made you feel some kind of emotion, but didn’t truly make sense.

You might have had an inkling of what I was saying. You may have furrowed your brow in annoyance, or perhaps your mind began to wander elsewhere mid-sentence. You might have even re-read those lines a few times trying to decipher it. But if you still don’t understand what I was advising, don’t worry; both ‘duport’ and ‘duportism’ are not real words, they were nonsensical terms and mock verbal blind spots which I created to prove a point – that much as you’d struggle to paint by numbers without the numbers, you’d struggle to make sense of a sentence if you didn’t truly understand they key words.

You may think you rarely lack knowledge of key words, especially if you’re a native speaker of the language you’re using. But how often do you find yourself having to re-read a sentence despite ‘knowing’ all the words? According to my clients, it’s extremely common.

When we have to re-read a sentence, it usually happens because of one of two things: it could be that the meaning behind the sentence you read caused your mind to recollect a story, imagine something new or put the pieces together on a problem you’ve been working on.

In these moments, those verbal blind spots hinder your subconscious from quickly internalizing new information, interrupting that enjoyable state of flow and learning.

If reading was like your subconscious trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle by putting the words in the right order to make a bigger picture, then verbal blind spots are like finding there’s a decorated piece missing.

If I Know the Word, Why do I Have a Verbal Blind Spot?

At first you may think it’s curious that you know a word but can’t define it, but then again how often are you asked to define the words you use?

People can suffer from verbal blind spots and a low VQ for a multitude of reasons.

If you’ve failed to create a personal definition of terminology during your adult life, you’ll have filled in the missing words with gut feelings – which are usually incorrect when examined a little deeper.

On the other hand, if an offending word causes you to feel a strong emotion it could potentially undermine your desire to understand it. We see this when devout Marxists read or hear the word Capitalism and fly into seeing hatred, because their personal definition of the word is one clouded with emotion which essentially equals ‘exploitation’, rather than a well-defined economic model.

Many often recognise this problem when looking at buzzwords in their workplace, but are still embarrassed to ask for a definition it. Why this is the case I’m unsure. Maybe it’s the fear of being seen as inadequate, but without asking you’ll never learn what the phrase means. If this is the cause, I’d strongly recommend you seek clarification on any words you’re unsure about, because it’s often better to know what to do, than to be told off for doing the wrong thing.

How Does Having a Low VQ Hinder Me?

My clients have shown me that how individuals of all ages who are often unable to translate verbal blind spots into their own words are effectively stunted in their potential. Unable to speak for themselves, someone else usually speaks for them and that person usually doesn’t have their charge’s best interests in mind. This handing over of the reigns to an authority figure also has the effect of making the non-speaker feel as if they are in some way an intellectual failure, because they falsely believe they misunderstand entire ideas – when in fact they merely fail to understand a handful of words crucial to understanding the bigger picture.

The reality is they are not an intellectual failure at all, because being unable to define a word does not define their potential or worth to the world!

How to Identify Verbal Blind Spots and Increase Your VQ:

The solution to eliminating verbal blind spots and increasing your VQ is simple: identify the word or phrase your mind is struggling with and give it a definition.

For example, if an instruction had been issued by your employer outlining their new corporate strategy which demanded you “practice synergy with everything you did” it’d be simple to follow – if you knew the true definition of ‘synergy’. If you misinterpreted ‘practice synergy to ‘working independently’, you’d quickly get into trouble given that ‘synergy’ essentially means ‘to work as a team.

Therefore, to improve your VQ you should first identify whatever word you cannot define in a sentence and then look up the dictionary definition. You can then create your own definition in terms you’re familiar with if the dictionary still proves to be too obtuse. Following that, try to paint a visual picture or micro-story of the concept as in the example below:

  • Synergy = (Dictionary definition) The combined power of a group of things when they are working together that is greater than the total power achieved by each working separately.
  • Synergy = (My definition) The power of teamwork.
  • Synergy = (Micro-story) Synergy is akin to the switch from doing your absolute best on a project by yourself and achieving mediocre results, to working alongside experts who could help you finish a project which is better than anything you could create when working alone.

By following this simple structure, you give yourself three ways to better understand your language.

The micro-story will often usually appeal to you on a more emotional and subconscious level, making it even more memorable.

How to Strengthen Your Word Definition Skills:

You can strengthen your word defining skills by abiding by these simple rules.

  • Your definition can articulate the essential attributes of whatever is at hand.
  • Your definition does not name the thing or concept being defined. For example: saying ‘a circle is circular’ adds nothing of clarity. It would be better to say ‘a circle is an infinitely looping object lacking straight lines’.
  • Your definition is neither too wide or narrow in its scope.
  • Your definition does not fall afoul of bias by using language such as: ‘the immoral are those who are not moral’.

Can I Test my VQ like my IQ?

No. I’ve not developed a test for Verbal Quotient mainly because many of the similar tests around linguistic fluency place a heavy reliance upon knowing obscure words, rather than testing your knowledge of common words and jargon. It’d also be impossible to check your personal definition, because they are personal to you.

Your IQ also doesn’t mean much in reality. IQ tests are often skewed in favour of those talented at mathematics and logic puzzles at the expense of those talented in other areas such as the arts. You could have an incredibly talented painter who scores terribly on an IQ test, but that doesn’t really mean much towards their potential.

I also don’t feel it’s truly possible to create an all-encompassing VQ test. You would have to contend with the issue of those who command larger vocabularies compared to those occasional reading-illiterate rustics who can hold us spellbound by their mastery over the use of the common word. One may know a wealth of words, but the other can use few far more effectively – in that case who has the larger VQ?

If you Can’t Test Someone’s VQ, How do You Know if it’s High or Low?

One of the best ways of testing your VQ is simply to try and define all the buzzwords and jargon you use in your career. If you can’t put give them a personal definition and micro-story then that’s a weakness. If you can easily define each term, then well done, you’ve a strong grasp of your common terminology and the words you frequently use!

Despite the lack of an official test, if you practice identifying and defining your verbal blind spots regularly, it will not only help improve your VQ, improve your ability to respond quickly but also improve your confidence when speaking, reading and writing more widely allowing you to speak, read and write for yourself.

I’m Still Struggling:

If you’re still finding work to be challenging due to buzzwords or simply struggling to find the right word, I’d be happy to help. Contact me today to schedule a bespoke session.

In the wrong hands, rhetorical language can be more dangerous than any weapon

Here are twelve ways to identify dangerous political rhetoric which can be used to divide, deride and destroy human rights.

  1. Be wary of language which pits one group against another. “Hardworking taxpayers versus lazy benefit claimants” creates an ‘us versus them’ mentality. It aims to portray one group as superior or inferior to the other, when in reality, they are equal human beings.
  2. Listen for language that dehumanizes groups by referring to them as animals. You may hear words such as “vermin,” “cockroaches,” or “billions of invaders” used to describe immigrants and aims to both instil fear and portray the suffering as something less than human which needs to be “eradicated”.
  3. Listen for language which delegitimizes the knowledge of experts while legitimizing the pseudo-knowledge of politicians. Conservative MP Michael Gove once claimed “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Not so, instead these sweeping statements aim to oppress opinions counter to those held by the ruling powers.
  4. Listen for language which creates scapegoats. The ammunition of a culture war is often aimed at the easiest target and weakest minority. Politicians and media outlets may blame LGBT+ people, immigrants or the poor for all your problems but never their policies.
  5. Listen for language which talks of “disease”. We are deeply scared of illness because it makes us weak. Therefore, some may claim that a particular group are “bringing diseases into our country”. This suggests that even the mere presence of this group is dangerous to you, when in reality they are of no threat whatsoever.
  6. Listen for the language of violence and war. Again often used against immigrants, you may hear words such as “killers”, “gangs”, or statements such as “we need to win the war against (group)” which all suggest that the innocent are armed, dangerous and intending to harm you.
  7. Listen for language which suggests a conspiracy. Phrases such as “the mainstream media is hiding the truth” or “the experts are working against us” or a more recent American-centric introduction “the liberal elite” create a sense of distrust and paranoia. Making you question everything is the first way to have you trust nothing.
  8. Listen for the language of authoritarianism. Politicians often use euphemisms to soften their language and make their ideas more palatable. “Strong and stable government” may sound sensible, but it could also mean authoritarian and unaccountable.
  9. Listen for language which plays on emotions rather than logic. Politicians often say “we need to do x for the sake of our children” because it’s emotionally compelling and hard to argue against, but that doesn’t always mean what they are proposing is either a logical or correct solution to a complex problem.
  10. Listen for language which belittles alternative opinions and attacks the other side. Quips such as “Fake News” or names such as “Remoaners” are used to discredit legitimate criticism and create a false sense of consensus. If someone is attacking the group, it’s often because they can’t debate their ideas.
  11. Listen for language which portrays legitimate criticism of an idea or person as an attack on the country or democracy. You may hear phrases such as “this investigation (against our idea or actions) is an attack on democracy” which aims to portray critics as enemies.
  12. Lastly, examine the slogans; “Stop the Boats” is a complex problem trying to be summarized into a three-word solution. You cannot summarize a life event into a tricolon of three words without first removing all the important details.

This is not a comprehensive list and there are many more examples of language such as this. But as alarmist as this may sound, knowing how to identify the language of authoritarianism is often one of the first steps towards preventing the goose-stepping which can later follow.

As written by Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me.

One of the most common issues clients bring to me is speaking with a lisp. Here are a few suggestions on how to first identify why you lisp and then how to stop doing it.

Types of lisp:

A lisp is often caused by incorrect tongue placement. Clients with a lisp usually place their tongue behind the bottom front teeth, when it should be placed on the gum-line behind the top front teeth (the alveolar ridge).

Interestingly, the avolear ridge isn’t just used for the ‘S‘ sound, it’s also used for ‘Z’, ‘L’, ‘T’, ‘D’ & ‘N’ sounds! Therefore, if you struggle to place your tongue in the right position for an ‘S’ sound, try it on one of these sounds.

Sometimes however, a lisp may be caused by allowing the tongue to protrude past the teeth when speaking which then creates a ‘th‘ sound.

A lisp can also manifest in old age due to a fattening of the tongue thanks to a lack of communication and general muscle degradation. This is more recently becoming an issue for those isolated due to Covid-19.

How to stop lisping:

Training yourself out of a lisp can be difficult, as you are constantly reinforcing yourself to place the tongue in a new position when speaking. It is normal to become frustrated when working on removing a lisp, as you’re attempting to train yourself out of a life-long habit. Thankfully, it can be done!

To alleviate a lisp, you first need to determine where you place your tongue when making an ‘S‘ sound. If your tongue is placed behind the bottom teeth, it needs to be arched upwards with the tip placed on gum-line behind the top front teeth (the alveolar ridge).

Try to avoid splaying the air out from either side of the top teeth, as this turns a crisp sound into lateralized lisp as shown below. You also want to avoid placing too much pressure on the gum line with the tip of your tongue, as that will create the same lateralized lisp. One student tried to imagine they were gently rolling an air bubble between their tongue and alveolar ridge which produced an immediate improvement.

What is a lateral lisp?
Source: Smart Talkers

If however your lisp is due to letting your tongue escape through the front teeth, the tongue must be pulled back into the mouth and then placed on the alveolar ridge.

Exercises to help:

One of the hardest parts to correcting a lisp is establishing new muscle memory. One simple exercise to build muscle memory is to spend a minute or two saying: ‘L, L, L,‘ by tapping the tip of your tongue on the alveolar ridge. Try not to say ‘El‘ though!

You could also try rolling the tongue in your mouth, forming different shapes and performing tongue stretches as outlined in previous posts. Thankfully, most of these exercises can be conducted in public with a closed mouth for an extended period of time! You could imagine rolling a small boiled sweet inside your mouth or attempting to tie a knot in a piece of string using your tongue. For open mouth exercises, sticking the tongue out to the far left, far right or flapping it back and forth works well, in private company!

Tools to stop a lisp:

One tool I’ve found especially useful to build muscle strength in the tongue is a Morrison Bone Prop. The shape of it also means it may help you place your tongue in the correct position, as trying to place your tongue at the incorrect position will cause the tip of your tongue to touch the device; something which you want to avoid.

If you want to try a more specialist mechanical aid, the company Speech Buddy offer a set of training devices specifically designed to help you overcome mechanical issues – advanced warning though, they are very expensive!

My Buddy and Me: A Review of Speech Buddies | Speech therapy tools, Speech  articulation, Speech therapy
Source: Speech Buddy

There are many more of these lessons, along with a comprehensive diction improvement guide available in: Speak and Be Heard – 101 Vocal Exercises for Voice Actors, Public Speakers and Professionals. Richard Di Britannia also offers private coaching on building vocal strength and confidence via his contact form.

A few minutes of listening can generate thousands of hours of results.

When passengers first took to travelling by rail, many felt uncomfortable being unable to speak directly to the driver who used to sit atop their previous mode of transportation – the Stagecoach. Some even refused to ride entirely and this was costing future-thinking railroad executives both their dreams and their investors fortunes.

In the old days the Stagecoach Driver was often a highly dangerous occupation. The term “your money or your life” may have been directed at the passengers of the frontier plains aimed down the barrel of a shotgun, but the driver wasn’t immune from such threats. In the old days, passengers looked to the Stagecoach Driver for reassurance, leadership and safety.

Knowing this, to alleviate this anxiety a handful of railway companies took staff members, dressed them as old-time stagecoach drivers and sat them exposed to the elements to help their customers feel more comfortable with their spitting, smoking and spluttering horseless carriage. Combined with a literal stagecoach mounted atop a railway axel it looked silly, it was a tad uncomfortable for the acting driver (who was liable to have their clothes set aflame by the embers of the engine), but this reassuring figure from the past helped increase revenue for the rail companies and brought dividends to happy investors.

Understandably though, the idea of employing a staff member to sit and do nothing but act as a reassuring symbol of the old days wasn’t easily accepted. There were bitter arguments against them. Model drivers added to the weight of the carriage inflating coal costs; they needed to be paid for their time and many rail executives saw them as an unnecessary expense given they did nothing but look pretty – when not on fire. “Damn the cowards, they can ride with us or sit behind a horse for hours on end” was the view by some.

When looking at the vision the railway executives had it’s obvious they saw the big picture – hundreds of thousands of people one day travelling by train across the country at the speed of a hundred horses. But for the people on the front line, the Ticketmaster’s and Porters who saw the present reality, they realised there were hundreds if not thousands of potential clientele too scared to realise this grand vision. The change necessary was massive to be sure, but the fears from customers were also magnified beyond reality. It was only when railway executives accepted they needed to amend their grand strategy, that it allowed for the populace to ride their marvelous chariots of travel en-masse.

Strong Leaders build a business, Visionary Leaders improve their industry:

How then does this tale apply to modern leadership? Well, when you look at modern business leaders there are usually three common themes: they are often experts in their field, their leadership is bolstered by the language they use and they know how to delegate well.

However, not all leaders are made equally. Some only look to the past and drag others reluctantly along with them like the leaders who demanded customers continue to travel by horse and buggy. Others focus on the present and get bogged down in the current problems of the day, like those who refused to change their railway plans. Whereas strong leaders look to the future to give instructions on how to achieve their aims, but fail to yield to the advice of others experts causing them costly mistakes. Not all of these leaders can achieve their goal, and too many often focus only on improving their business, rather than improving their industry.

That’s the difference. The leader who improves their industry, who thinks far beyond their stagecoach door, is what I call a Visionary Leader.

A Visionary Leader is one who listens to anyone respective of position or prestige and then amends their vision based upon what others share with them. A Visionary Leader is like the railway executive who despite seeing hundreds of benefits from using their railway, accepts others are like old stagecoach horses, blinkered and unwilling to change their route.

Modern Day problems sometimes require old-timey solutions:

Which of these three styles of leadership have you experienced?

Weak Leadership – Looking to the past: “Our product is struggling due to last quarter’s performance”.

Although this is a statement of fact, it offers no action statement, solution or explanation for the poor performance. There’s no future thinking here, only past reflection.

Average Leadership – Looking at the present: “We need to grow our product performance or else we will have another failure next quarter. Does anyone have any ideas?”.

This is once again a statement of fact, but despite it offering an action statement it offers no future goal, it also fails to outline what caused the failure. The lack of direction is disappointing, because although asking for advice is beneficial, a leader shouldn’t be asking others where they are going.

Strong Leadership – Setting a plan to follow and explaining the benefits of doing so: “We’ve learned from our past experiences. We are going change our marketing strategy to focus on Instagram, because our Twitter campaign taught us static images are no longer popular. With Instagram we’ll use ten-second videos, which will allow us monitor customer retention. This ensures our marketing department will be able to change our videos quickly, rather than waiting for the results of a static image campaign at the end of each week. Doing this will also allow us to quickly learn which products we need to focus on and which need to be further developed, saving large amounts of money marketing anything which isn’t popular. We can reinvest the funds from those dead marketing campaigns into product development to be finished by the end of our next quarter.”

This statement offers an action statement, a clear instruction and knowledge on how the campaign can be improved. It also shows they have a vision for future development, product investing and how they have considered various scenarios which rely upon the support of others. Still, there’s no request for input from others who may have excellent advice to share. Their plan could be destroyed by a single bad investment.

A Visionary Leader listens to the people on the front lines:

A Visionary Leader is liable to give similar instructions to that of the Strong Leader, but they will always ask for input from others whilst doing so, because a Visionary Leader knows their plan isn’t perfect. They know others know more than them. They know a grand vision can only be realised through the experience, input and power of those who see the finer details.

A Visionary Leader knows that leadership isn’t simply demanding others follow them or customers act as intended, instead it involves charming others to want to achieve a common goal through appealing to their values, their needs and delegating responsibilities to the right people to give customers what they want. It also involves being humble and willing to learn, to have empathy with people far below their industry status and the knowledge that great plans need great ideas – which can often come from people without great paychecks.

A Visionary Leader is the Railway Executive who happily approaches the young, fresh-faced Porter and asks to know his customers concerns. They are the leader who shakes hands with the coal-covered driver, foreman and boiler worker, who each dripping with sweat explain customers are shouting at them during the journey – and then rewards these staff handsomely for sharing so.

A Visionary Leader is the person who looks at their grand strategy and occasionally amends it to take a step back in time to add an old-fashioned, expensive, model driver to a driverless carriage to allay the fears of his customers – all with the knowledge that it’ll one day be phased out and pay out when their vision steams on by.

Gossip can ruin relationships, cripple careers and finish friendships.

Here’s three tactful ways to tell the local gossip you’re not interested in listening or talking: 

  1. Be blunt: “Sorry, I don’t want to talk about someone behind their back. It’s not polite.”
  2. Change the topic: “Sorry to interrupt but, I’d like to talk about…”
  3. Defend: “Oh that’s a surprise, I heard they were [positive trait]”.
Three Ways to Tactfully Deal with a Gossip

A gossiper needs a listener and if you won’t listen, they won’t talk!

Need to use PowerPoint in a presentation or speech and worried about losing your place or skipping a slide or two? Here’s three useful tips:

1. Change the room: Your visual senses are always on high alert for changes. Insert an occasional black-background slide to contrast with your white-background slides and it’ll slightly darken then room reminding you where you are.

2. Use your tactile senses: Your tactile memory is surprisingly strong. Add an extra hidden animation prior to a vitally important slide, that way you’ll have to press your clicker twice to transition to the next slide. Your mind might wander, but your fingers are liable to stay on course after practice.

3. Listen to a recording: Your auditory memory is also surprisingly influential. Record yourself saying the headings of your presentation and then add a 30 second pause for you to fill in the gaps during your practice. It’ll also help you keep your message concise.

Virtual Reality has a problem which no-one can see and that’s a little weird for a technology based around sight.

Over the last 365 days I’ve spent almost 50 of those days in Virtual Reality (VR). Immersing myself in online lectures, escaping the loneliness of lockdown and occasionally working with clients who have such extreme social anxiety they dare not turn on their webcamera to talk via Google Meet, Zoom or Skype has been a joy to experience. It’s even allowed me to take to virtual Ted-Talk stages to practice my public speaking when everyone else was cooped up at home. I’m now an advocate of the technology and its therapeutic benefits for treating mental illnesses or improving education have already been shown in numerous case studies. However, as a communication skills coach, I have some concerns about how virtual reality and the mechanised ‘Metaverse’ has the potential to damage the way we communicate, and it’s not something I’ve noticed the big tech-companies talking about: the lack of micro-expressions.

Virtual Reality?

If you know what virtual reality is, you can skip this section, but if you’ve not heard of VR, it’s essentially a couple of special mobile phone-like screens held a few centimeters before your eyes which when combined display a 3D image.

Thanks to clever engineering there’s little worry of eye damage and the headset can trick your brain into thinking you’re in the environment shown before you. Couple this with a set of controllers which allow you to move around in the said environment and you can have a particularly convincing experience of escapism, education or excitement. It’s not perfect, but for gaming, recreation and practically anything you can imagine it’s a fantastic resource.

Virtual reality is regularly used in enterprise too. Car manufactures are using it to examine prototypes before production. Surgeons are using it to see inside virtual cadavers and standing on a mock Ted Talk stage in VR for the first, second and third time can be a lot scarier than you think, especially when combined with the uncanny-valley effect of a 2D audience:

Subconscious subtle signals

Micro-expressions on the other hand are are best imagined as tiny, involuntary visual emotions. They are the minute bodily and facial movements which occur whenever our subconscious responds to a stimulus. Poker players train for years to try their best to hide and read these subtle ‘tells’.

Micro-expressions are so powerful that if you bump into someone you know, both you and they will realise within a split second if you are happy to see each other, because your micro-expressions responded quicker than your conscious mind can manage them. Restaurant staff have known for a long time that a mirror behind the bar tends to subdue the perturbed customer who can see their own angry face, call center staff know customers are much more aggressive over the telephone than they would ever be in person and those who have had a bad haircut can often find it fiendishly challenging to convince the barber they did a good job. All this over a few imperceptible movements.

Despite being small, micro-expressions can’t be underestimated. Both nature and nurture have taught our subconscious how to interpret the meaning behind these subtle signals. Anyone who has ever been in a tense situation will probably talk about how they “saw he had a look in his eye”, something “just didn’t seem right” during a negotiation or how a “gut feeling” saved them from a dangerous situation. In these instances, it was often the micro-expressions observed by the subconscious which gave away the other parties true intentions. Others describe micro-expressions when they say how a lover “had a twinkle in their eye”, how “looking at them made you feel at ease” or how “their smile lit up the whole room”. In both of these examples, there was something almost undefinable which caused either emotional upset, or encouragement. You might not have been able to see it, but your subconscious could.

But without micro-expressions, communicating with another person can seem a little unsettling. It’s why some people are scared of talking over the phone. It’s why some animations can fall into the uncanny-valley territory. It’s also why people have been struggling with Zoom fatigue over lockdown. The overemphasis of trying to appear ‘presentable’, stoic and a constant belief that we have to maintain eye-contact with the speaker or webcamera means we are consciously trying to suppress those natural expressions. Imagine then what problems the lack of micro-expressions could cause in VR.

Virtual Reality is a bit like Botox

I’ve never had Botox. I quite like my face as it is. But Botox paralyses facial muscles. That’s not a problem, it’s what it’s supposed to do. The paralysis removes wrinkles and supposedly restores a little bit of youth to those who use it. But as written by Jessie Cole in The Guardian:

“…an often unconsidered side effect of Botox is the intended paralysis of facial muscles means the user loses those brief, involuntary facial expressions, or micro-expressions which reveal our unconscious feelings of anger, happiness, disgust, embarrassment or pride. In a sense, communicating with someone who’s had Botox is like communicating with a static image – much of the body language involved is silenced. Considering that body language, mostly consisting of facial expressions, makes up at least half of any message being communicated, this is a significant loss.

…but this facial paralysis also inhibits the ability of the Botoxed to mimic the facial expressions of others, which is critical in the formation of empathy. Facial micro-mimicry is the major way we understand others’ emotions. If you are wincing in pain I immediately do a micro-wince, which sends a message to my brain about what you are experiencing. By experiencing it myself I understand what you are going through. This suggests that not only do I find my Botoxed friends hard to read, but they are also hindered in their capacity to read me. An unfortunate feedback cycle. The possible implications of this are frightening.”

The paralysis of micro-expressions can be devastating. Studies have found the children of parents injected with Botox struggle to develop empathy in their early life, because their parents faces can’t show it. People who go too far with plastic surgery paralyze their face to the extent they fall into the uncanny-valley effect, making conversation with them uncomfortable, their own children showing ‘still face syndrome’ rather than natural expressions.

Virtual Reality is liable to cause the same problem, because the technology we have currently lacks the ability for its users to show micro-expressions, which could be detrimental when we communicate with our ‘virtual’ staff, customers or colleagues.

To better understand why, we need to look at the current state of the avatars used to represent people in the virtual world.

Avatars and Emoticons:

Virtual Reality avatars are multifold. They range from the semi-realistic shown here made by software company Wolf3D:

To the Japanese anime designs commonly found in the most popular VR social platform, VRChat:

No alt text provided for this image

To the Zuckerberg look-a-like Rubenoid style found on Altspace VR:

No alt text provided for this image

To the almost realistic 3D scans offered by Spatial:

When choosing an avatar for private use the choice is yours. Some may prefer a more realistic style, others a more cartoony and some might even forgo human designs to play the part of a robot, animal or imaginary design of their choice. Personal choice is always going to be popular and there’s a booming avatar creation industry among for fans looking for a unique design.

But as VR avatars lack the ability to display micro-expressions, the subconscious is unable measure the true intentions behind the speaker’s words or actions. The cross-referencing of past expressions with those being currently displayed by a basic avatar is paralysing for the subconscious to measure compared to the hundreds of available stimuli being observed when seeing a person in-person.

People in VR also tend to accidentally interrupt each other when speaking, because they are unable to see when their conversational partner has finished talking or is simply pausing to collect their thoughts. Even for long-term users of VR this can become annoying (if not accepted as a drawback to the current technology). The use of larger body language tends to help, but with many corporate avatars failing to offer anything more than a head and a floating pair of hands, that crutch is not always available.

Imagine then how a first time user of VR is going to feel talking to a static face, being regularly interrupted and left unable to experience those reassuring moments of mirror neurons firing when sharing empathy with another person.

How emotions are currently expressed in VR:

Users of VR will also know that the most unsettling of avatars are those which are either realistic or static. Hearing a voice speak from an unmoving, or miss-moving face sets off alarm bells deep within the psyche. There’s a visceral response to seeing these avatars, which is why on virtual platforms they are immensely unpopular.

To avoid this, in VR emotions are usually coded to provide a set number of responses and are displayed by either the click of a button or the movement of the users hands. Making a thumbs up sign usually causes the face to smile. A finger gun could be a sign of annoyance, the V for Victory sign meaning sadness and the rock and roll horns gesture often displaying an expression of excitement. For habitual users of VR this rudimentary form of sign language often bleeds into daily life, with users accidentally finding themselves making the aforementioned gestures whilst having non-virtual conversations.

More recently, technology which reads facial gestures and uses eye tracking has been growing in popularity. The example below created by Vive removes the needs for memorizing finger-semaphore shown here in this rather uncanny-valley example

But again, looking at this this example you might be able to gleam a sense of the emotion people are trying to convey, but it’s far from natural. For some, it can even be unnerving.

A potential pool of problems:

A lack of micro-expressions in a VR meeting at your workplace could cause contention. It could be as simple as a glitch. We also all know the musculature feeling of pulling a smile, but what happens if your software fails and shows an angry face when you’re being kind? You’d have no idea what your face was showing.

What happens if a staff member is unable to read the tone of your voice and thinks your hesitant “yes” which would usually accompany a nervous glance, was an agreed-to “yes” if they can’t see your expressions?

Much as you can’t see the expressions of the actors during a radio play or audiobooks they need to exaggerate their emotions and voices to convince you of what’s happening to them. Without this emphasis the performance sounds woody, hollow and lacking life. The same might happen in the virtual office. Can you imagine how tiring it would be to have to be exuberant with your emotions all day long to get the point across? Even the master performers at Disney Park need regular breaks.

What happens if you’re talking to someone and forget to follow company code and show the smiley emoji mid-conversation? Can you imagine having someone scrutinise your expressions all day long? An automated system can and companies might use that as grounds to fire you.

What happens if press the wrong button and show the wrong emotion? Three strikes and you’re out?

What happens if you have to speak to someone who struggles to understand your words? Micro-expressions and gestures are especially powerful in helping convey crucial information.

How do you give a sideways glance or raise an eyebrow in VR?

What happens if an administrator robs you of certain ‘unwanted’ emotions or even your voice during a virtual meeting?

A more sinister problem on the horizon:

Fixing the issue of missing micro-expressions is a technical problem. With enough time and resources, it can be achieved. But those of the technofundamentalism creed (the idea that every problem can be solved by technological advancement) don’t always consider the larger picture: what happens if your real life image isn’t up to company code?

Indian call centers have long suppressed staff identities by demanding the use of ‘neutral accents’. Other companies have demanded international staff use Western names. If Siddharth has been forced to announce himself as Steve and Kjersti made to call herself Christine, companies will surely do the same with how their employees look in the virtual space.

Minorities are likely to suffer first. You need only look how most call centers tend to use the same stock photography of a light-skinned, brown-haired and blue-eyed representative which seldom reflects the people employed.

If you’re a dark-skinned person with dreadlocks what’s stopping a racist company using VR as a customer service tool demanding you display a more ‘presentable’ avatar, such as one with different coloured skin and a different haircut? There’s no law against this.

What happens if you’re a red-head, but marketing says customers prefer speaking to blondes? Not many companies would dare demand their staff dye their hair. (Although the sad reality is, this sort of discrimination already exists in the real world; American employers are legally allowed to discriminate potential employees based on their hairstyles.)

How would you feel being forced to look down at a pair of hands which are drastically different to your own skin tone, the excuse being that it is ‘pleasing’ to customers?

Voice changers are also becoming more realistic. How would you feel if HR demanded you use a vocal synthesizer to play the part of the opposite gender on your shift?

What happens if the company demands the use of facial tracking, or pupil measurement software to measure your expressions on the job?

In the VR space, capitulating to such demands would only further entrench inequalities and biases, making it more difficult for the world to accept people as they are.

Steps towards a brave new world:

The solution to fixing the issue of missing micro-expressions is simple – add them. The benefit of doing so ensures users of VR are better understood.

However unlike our Botox analogy, serious ethical discussions need to be had by experts on the looming issue of the corporatisation of virtual representation, because those who see virtual reality individuality as a ‘problem’, are likely to be on the loudest side when demanding conformity and pushing for the removal of the rights of self-expression.

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