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Asphalt Anthropology: How COVID is Changing Non-Verbal Cues For Street Safety

Part One: The Internal Changes

It started on a Zoom call. I was problem solving with a colleague. At the time it was something challenging and important. But looking back, I don’t even remember what it was – other than something to do with the tremendous pivot required of everyone right now due to COVID. While the specific problem now escapes me, I have one vivid recollection from the call: the heightened sensation in my fingertips as I placed them together in steeple formation while I thought deeply about our current business challenge. As my fingers touched each other, it was as if the ridges of my fingerprints were as deep as the Grand Canyon. The sensation was so intense it momentarily shocked me out of my train of thought. It wasn’t pain. It was a deep, rich sense of alertness and feeling.

Fun Finger Facts for Friggin' Up Freaks

It wasn’t an injury, or even my yoga nidra practice that gave me this sudden jolt of deep awareness. The only thing unique about the moment was that it came weeks into a self-imposed hibernation. Like the rest of the world I had been sheltering in place since mid-March due to COVID. My world in our cozy (i.e. tiny) apartment was suddenly a whole lot smaller. Our infrequent public outings were reduced to the few blocks around us that we had traveled a million times before. But since my Fingertips-as-the-Grand-Canyon call, even trips down those well-worn streets often became a surreal, Daliesque experience.

Details of the neighborhood seemed new as they jumped out on our walks. Some observations were exciting, like new details on an old mural. Some were mundane like the heating vents on a neighbor’s roof. It’s ironic that I teach situational awareness and something I consciously do when out-and-about in familiar places is to look for things I’ve never seen before. But now these new details stood out with no effort.

la la land mural hollywood
The “You Are the Star” mural made famous by the La La Land movie - my new “COVID brain” is making me notice details I’ve never seen before! | Photo by Brian Donnelly

Its easy to have inattentional blindness when the streets are lively and filled with locals, tourist and vendors. Having your senses overwhelmed and discerning what is important is one of the challenges of city-life. But now the nearly empty streets make the details more readily seen. Add to that being cooped up, being deprived of new visual stimulation, and my newly quiet neighborhood is suddenly alive in a whole new way.

On the flip side, while some of my senses seem to be on extra alert, I’ve also noticed a dulling of my senses in other ways. At first video conferencing in my pajamas was exciting and even productive. I took advantage of new opportunities to learn and reconnect with loved ones. Then Zoom Fatigue set in. Perhaps like you, I’m now on Zoom for hours on end. At first I couldn’t understand why all I wanted was a nap after some meetings. Until I learned:

Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat, says Petriglieri. Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we're not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” he says.

Online, those skills we use in our in-person worlds moved to overdrive. Hence a new boundary for me – unless I am getting paid or we’re related, I can't take another Zoom call.


Part Two: The Change in Non-Verbal Dynamics with Others

As a lifelong urban explorer, my ability to send and read non-verbal cues on the street, in cultures around the world, have been key to my personal safety. Now the changes that I was experiencing due to COVID began showing up in unexpected ways on the street. In situational awareness, much is made of reading the non-verbal cues of others. But sending your own non-verbal messages is just as important. These skills are essential for all kinds of relationships. But now, on the street I find myself having to adapt old habits because of wearing a mask.

james dean la tattoo hollywood blvd
Even James Dean is Covering Up | Photo by Brian Donnelly

My wake up call came from a walk down Schrader Blvd. by the Los Angeles LGBT Center. The Center has long been a life line for many – and more so now as they are a source of meals for many in need. On a walk early in the crisis Brian and I wound up turning down Schrader. There we found ourselves in the middle of a heartbreaking scene in what felt like a mix of a Depression era bread line on the set of Blade Runner. We purposely stayed in the middle of the street to maintain a safe distance. But that didn’t stop the wave of gratitude that hit as we observed the desperation. About half way down the block a large, masked security guard started hulking towards us. Unable to read his face, all I could read was his 200+ pound frame striding swiftly, directly in our direction. My smile under my mask went undetected as he approached. The baseball cap I wore shielding my eyes from the sun also obscured the friendly “smiling eyes” I’ve learned to display as a way of deflecting trouble. Even my humble nod with my chin going down was too slight to be easily recognized under all my new protective gear. Not only could I not read him – just as importantly – I couldn’t send my own cues of “not looking for trouble”. As he got nearer I gave him a friendly “Hello” as we kept moving. With that, his body relaxed, he gave us an equally friendly “Hello” and moved off his trajectory towards us and moved in another direction.

It is important to look for more than one cue when reading or sending non-verbal messages. It’s what the authors of Left of Bang call, observing in clusters to help us avoid misreading single cues. Now that so many faces are obscured behind masks, sending and reading multiple signals are more important than ever.

A discarded face make on the Walk of Fame | Photo by Brian Donnelly

In this “new normal” I’m still fumbling with my own tried-and-true street dodges under cover of my mask. A recent mistake nearly escalated a threat at Hollywood and Highland when a guy darted from behind the Metro map kiosk as I walked by. Good thing I was pie-ing that corner or he would have been right on me.

Instead, as he came out from behind the kiosk, I was able to maintain distance between us. Walking ahead he turned back to me and said something indiscernible. His behavior and vocal tone were red flags. That’s when I gave him “The Chin” thrusting my chin up in the air brazenly with a sharp, “What’s up?”.

I’ve done “The Chin” countless times. By listening to my intuition, I seem to have worked out just the right amount of physical movement and tone to diffuse threats. But this time I was off. Overcompensating for my mask, I thrusted my chin higher and made my voice louder and harder than usual. He stopped in his tracks. “What’s up?!” he barked back. The pepper spray I was now carrying regularly on Hollywood Blvd since the last weird-o was ready. He started to double back towards me. I swung up the rope that dangled from my wrist to catch the pepper spray in my hand. With my thumb on the trigger he looked at my hand and then at me. “I don’t want none of that” he mumbled. Then he jay-walked across traffic.


Situational awareness is frequently mistaken for being alert to threats. But when you tune into your environment, you get to enjoy the beautiful, the magical and kindness too. This is becoming more apparent to me as I’m seeing how all these non-verbal cues bind us together. I recently strolled by a front yard where an exhausted mother looked after her small children as they splashed in a tiny kiddie pool. As the kids played I noticed how tired the mom looked. I smiled in an attempt to show her kindness but my mask hid my smile. She held my gaze but she just vacantly stared right through me. I kept moving and felt sad for not be able to connect with a simple smile.

My senses feel muted - but that doesn't stop me from trying to smell the roses!

I’m not exactly as productive as I had hoped I would be during this time. There are still dust bunnies in the corners and under my bed. Exercise is still happening, but it's forced now that I don’t have the camaraderie of my workout buddies. A stack of books I got from the library just before the shutdown is still sitting on my dining table. But one thing I am doing is the thing I love the best. I still love cities – even in the middle of all this mess, I’m watching and observing the human animal and how we adapt… or not.

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