I have two greyhounds. We go out every morning to our local park, meet other dog owners and walk together around the perimeter. A few mornings ago, just as I was leaving, I spotted a dark veiled figure. As the figure came towards me, I saw she (and I presume it was a she) was in full niqab – that is, not only a black scarf and long coat, also a black cloth covering her face as well.
Immediately I felt threatened. It surprised me I could feel this viscerally. Why did I feel so strongly? I have grown used to seeing Muslim women in my area in a hijab – just a scarf covering the head. And my response? I feel perfectly comfortable and relaxed.
According to Wikipedia, in 2005 a non-Muslim young woman, a student at Eastern Michigan University decided to find out what impact she would make if she wore full niqab. She spent a full semester in niqab and her impression was that no one wanted to be near her. It led her to conclude that conservative Muslim dress is disapproved of in the United States.
Her interpretation is too simple. Certainly it looks as though this form of dress is a political as well as a religious statement. However there is something deeper. If you read my posts, you’ll have come across an entry “Botox Stops You Reading People?” about the difficulty of people who’ve been botoxed to empathise with others. This is because we develop empathy by reading what the other is feeling by mimicking their facial expression. When we are prevented from seeing facial expression, a great deal of non-verbal information is denied us. We rely on facial signals to interpret intention. Those micro-facial expressions Ekman analyses signal what’s really happening in the mind and heart.
When I saw the woman in niqab in the park I didn’t know what her intention was, how she was feeling, what she was thinking. I instinctively made the mistake of filling that unknown with my fear.
Business is based on trust and confidence which is why I always meet people face-to-face. To develop trust, I need to understand their intention. And for that, I need to be able to read their faces.