The value of human interaction


  • Education
  • Sunday, 13 Sep 2020

DUE to restrictions caused by the current pandemic, my old friend, ex-colleague, Dilla, and I had not been meeting up for our usual teh tarik sessions at the mamak. Although we had been communicating quite regularly over the phone, Dilla succinctly described it as ‘not the same-lah.’

When we did finally catch up, coming together while sipping piping hot teh tarik halia while the aroma of sizzling ayam goreng berempah wafted through the air, was a moment unmatched by any virtual interaction.

Dilla was deeply engaged in her chicken briyani when she remembered something.

“Aiyoh, I was supposed to call Bob at six today. It’s already five past. Here, ” she nodded towards her phone. “Can you please dial the number for me and put it on speaker? Look for Bob...” she trailed off.

“Bob who?” I asked as I scrolled down her contact list. “What’s his last name? There are about 300 ‘Bobs’ here, ” I said.

She frowned at me first. “Don’t exaggerate. There’re only about 50. Look for ‘Bob Big Ears’, ” she added a little sheepishly.

“Who has a last name like that?” I said. “How can you...” and then as I scrolled down her contact list, there he was – ‘Bob Big Ears‘, right between ‘Bob Bald-Patch’ and ‘Bob Onion’.

I called the number but there was no answer.

“How can you save people’s names like that, ” I asked. “Don’t you even bother to find out their last names?”

“Whatever for? It’s not as if you ever really need to call them. This way, I have a mental picture of the person I am talking to. Besides, ” she cast an accusing eye at me. “Everybody does it. In fact, someone is probably saving our names in his contact list as we speak. I could be Dilla Amazing or Dilla Gorgeous... the possibilities are endless, really.”

“Hmm, hmm, ” I muttered. “The thought of being ascribed a descriptive last name on somebody’s list of contacts was curiously disturbing.

“Then there’s the other system more people use depending on the kind of relationships they have. So I have ‘Sugee Cake Anna’ for the person I order these cakes from, ‘Cockroach Ben’ for the pest control man and ‘Grass Joe’ for the gardening guy. I also have ‘Grasshopper Lim’ listed simply because he reminds me of a giant grasshopper, ” continued Dilla.

It was like listening to someone rattle off the names from the deck of Happy Families. I was relieved when it ended. But upon reflection, I realised that I, too, had a few descriptions tagged to the less familiar contacts on my phone listing to help me identify people better.

Then I thought about the systems we teachers used to help us remember the names of all our students. It was probably a personal system that we consciously or unconsciously devise to fit into the existing schemata in our minds when remembering names and recognising faces.

In the classroom, it could initially be associated with some defining physical trait or behaviour. It could also simply be by the places they sit in the classroom or the way they speak and respond. The one with the curly hair in a ponytail was Sue Lin, the one who sat right in the middle of the last row was Raj and the one whose uniforms were always two sizes too large was Linda.

On average, the national schoolteacher teaches around 150 different students and remembering everyone’s names is a daunting task. I know that it used to take me almost a whole school year before I, a form teacher, could eventually get all the names of the 35 students in my class right.

On a more serious note, there is a brain disorder called Prosopagnosia or face blindness, where people find it difficult to recognise or differentiate faces although they may be familiar ones. While we may not actually be suffering from face blindness, there may have been instances when we just can’t remember who’s who in our classrooms despite the fact that the physical settings offer a multitude of visual clues to our students’ identities. It is a far cry in comparison to the voices and often unclear images that come through in virtual classrooms.

In the virtual classroom, you are never in any doubt about who is saying what as the speakers’ names appear next to the images whenever they talk. And when virtual class sizes are not too huge, it is possible to manage the emotional environment efficiently.

Teachers and students, especially those in higher education, are now bracing for the changes that the pandemic has brought with it. We are reminded that online teaching and learning are indeed the new normal for education. There is no turning back. We are told to go with the flow, equip yourself with the skills that are needed for this shift and just move on.

Yet there are those who scoff saying there is nothing normal about the new normal. Although they are prepared to concur that it is an alternative mode that accords the learner with self-paced and self-accessed learning, they believe that nothing can take the place of the physical classroom – the sights, sounds and yes, even the odour. There is a longing for communication and interaction between people to return to the pre-Covid-19 days.

I understand that most keenly now that I am a grandmother. I am missing a major first-year milestone of my granddaughter’s life in Europe because of travel restrictions. Although I see her almost everyday through video calls and I am kept informed of every stage of her development, the experiences pale in comparison.

Those of you who have loved ones abroad will know the yearning of not being able to hug, touch and feel the persons you are missing. The need for physical contact is part of our human make-up.

Perhaps there really is no turning back. We have to adapt to what lies ahead. But it begs the question. With everything else being equal – and without risks involved – what would we choose: real or virtual human interaction?

Dr G Mallika Vasugi who currently teaches in a local university, provides insights on the teaching profession. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Star.

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