‘We are born hungry for faces’: why are they so compelling?

We’ve spent a year obscured by masks and pixellated by Zoom. Are you ready to go back to reading real-life facial expressions in all their fascinating glory?

This has been the year of a thousand faces. Every face is an inch or two high on my laptop screen, and trapped inside a rectangle. The rectangles form a wall of faces that builds up brick by brick. As each new face arrives, the wall shifts and rearranges itself. Outside, in the real world, other people’s faces have been frustratingly elusive, half-hidden by masks. Or they have averted their gaze, focused on completing their essential journeys and not wishing to exchange their spittle with mine. But here the faces keep coming, popping up magically from wherever they are in the world, happy to be seen.

During lulls in meetings, my eyes scan the virtual room. You can look long and hard at people’s faces online in a way that would be rude in real life. I have never before paid this much attention to how a hairline runs along the top of a forehead, or an eye sits in its socket, or a jawline segues into a neck. I hadn’t noticed how vulnerable faces are – so soft, fleshy and bruisable – and how mercurially they move between moods. The faces look by turns dazed, dogged, sweetly attentive, full of faraway thoughts that no one could guess at, and as if they are trying hard to be bright-eyed and smiley but might suddenly dissolve into tears. It’s been that kind of year.

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