“Stop touching your face!”

Portrait of the collective face touches by ten different people over 17 minutes at a San Francisco cafe (back in March 5, 2020).

So much has changed since I completed this data visualization portrait seven weeks ago. Remember back when we could hang out in cafes? Back before the shelter-in-place enforced on March 17 in the Bay Area. Long before we would be required to wear face masks on those rare occasions we do step outside for groceries or walks.

Back in March, the CDC advised everyone to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by: 1) washing your hands frequently with soap for 20 seconds, and 2) stop touching your face with unwashed hands.

Sidenote: visit the CDC website for more updated details on best practices to keep you and others healthy and safe during this pandemic.

These two practices of hand-washing and no-face-touching seemed simple enough. The public health nerd in me loved it for its accessibility (before soon-to-come soap and hand sanitizer hoarding and shortages) and its focus on prevention. The meditator in me loved this new mindfulness challenge.

Stop touching your face! How hard could it be?

So much harder than I thought. How many hundreds or thousands of times a day had I scratched an itch, brushed my hair out of my face, or rubbed my eyes without even thinking about it? Let alone having freshly washed my hands first.

Returning to my meditation practice for guidance, I started with trying to notice:

  1. when I touched public surfaces: like doorknobs, tables, and shared condiments such as salt & pepper or Cholula hot sauce (I’ve worked in the service industry and trust me, those don’t get cleaned often enough),
  2. when I properly washed my hands with soap: for at least 20 seconds, and
  3. when I touched my face, which felt like: ALL THE TIME.

It seemed like a lot to rest my awareness on all at once. But then again, isn’t that part of the practice of mindfulness? To bring the mindfulness practice with us beyond the controlled, quiet environment of our cushions and into the rest of our messy and distraction-filled day.

Then, I put on my public health researcher hat and went into the field to observe other humans out in the urban wilderness. My main question: when do we touch our face most often, and why?

Research methodology & data

Since this research was completed as part of my “Analogous Perspectives” project in my Data Visualization course, I went completely old school as instructed by the “analogue” part of the assignment. So I captured data via pen and paper while conducting participant observation. Commonly known to most non-researchers as people watching in a local cafe (which will remain unnamed).

Field notes from my participatory observation research on 3/5/20 at a local cafe.

Over a period of 17 minutes, I observed the ten people in the cafe (8 patrons and 2 staff members) and tallied each time they* touched any part of their body above the shoulders.

During the observation period, I realized I had tucked some of my own stray hairs behind my ear so I added a separate column to tally my own face touches too.

I assumed that the people I was observing had not freshly and properly washed their hands as I did not witness them do so or visit the restroom.

Some people also adjusted their glasses and fidgeted with their earrings, so I added these accessories to the list.

*Sidenote: I chose to use they/them pronouns in describing people in my observations below as no gender pronouns were established with research subjects. Also, gender was not a hypothesized factor in this research. I acknowledge that I referred to a “guy” in my field notes (in the photo above) prior to making this decision.

Observations & curiosities for further research

  • face touches are intimately linked with our posture: one person was hunched over their laptop with their head propped up by their arm, hand covering their chin and mouth for most of the observation period; another person similarly propped their head up with a hand on their cheek while writing in a notebook. Is sitting up straight better not only for our spines but also to reduce germ intake?
  • increase in (self) face touching when “flirting”, especially mouth and chin regions, observed to be true of both parties engaged in intimate conversation which was perceived to be flirting. How is flirting / dating / intimacy related to germ intake, immune health, and the spread of germs?
  • staff member with long hair repeatedly touching & flipping their hair: and my own hair adjustment during the observation period make me wonder… Does length of hair / hair style / gender play into the number of times we touch and rearrange our hair? How is hair touching also related to people pleasing or flirting? Does cutting our hair short (which I did recently but not for this reason) or tying it back reduce our germ intake?
  • one person reached in their bag to use their personal hand sanitizer before eating a danish with their hands: good job, also how long does COVID-19 survive on plastic hand sanitizer bottles? Does smearing hand sanitizer on the bottle kill germs?

Main takeaway: it’s hardest to be mindful when distracted.

Okay, this seems self-evident. Distracted behaviors observed in the research included people being on laptops, reading, writing, or flirting. Being deeply immersed in these activities draws our attention away from others around us and also from our own less-conscious behaviors. So how could we keep some more awareness, and if not awareness then implement safeguards, to prevent face touches, germ intake, and the spread of disease?

This is why face masks help.*

*for preventing the spread of certain diseases including COVID-19

While medical masks might not stop the COVID-19 virus completely, wearing a face mask or face covering helps reduce our propensity for touching our face according to this BBC article. Essentially, we keep ourselves from transferring germs from car handles, credit cards, shopping baskets, or public surfaces straight into our nose or mouth. And before you point to the medical mask shortage, here are some different ways you can craft face coverings of your own with simple materials like a T-shirt and without needing to know how to sew. In addition, the CDC currently recommends practicing social distancing in addition to wearing face coverings in public settings.

As a first generation Chinese American myself, it would be remiss of me not to name the racism, discrimination, and xenophobia directed at the Asian population at large, woven throughout this current COVID-19 pandemic. From judgments on mask-wearing to harassment to hate crimes.

Especially in Western cultures, we often associate seeing someone wearing a face mask to mean: that individual is sick. Whereas in Asian cultures, people often wear face masks not only to prevent their illness spreading to others but also to prevent contraction of disease when they are healthy. Many still vividly remember the SARS outbreak in 2002. As a first generation Chinese American myself, it would be remiss of me not to name the racism, discrimination, and xenophobia directed at the Asian population at large, woven throughout this current COVID-19 pandemic. From judgments on mask-wearing to harassment to hate crimes.

This is a time for us to practice anti-racism in a time of global crisis. It’s not enough simply to be “not racist” during our pandemic and also just in general—we must be antiracist. We may feel powerless to control much of what’s happening around us, especially right now. But we can choose what information we share, when to check our biases and judgments, and how we treat each other in this time of crisis.

To objectify or subjectify those around you, friends or family or strangers, near or far. That is something you can influence directly.

Will we choose to see each other as “other” and as threats, or will we recognize our shared humanity, fear, and suffering among all of us navigating these times? Will we objectify and blame others to try to placate ourselves, or will we see others also as subjects within their own lives, losses, and challenges?

Back to the data visualization portrait…

More than serving as a facial map of observed face touches, represented by little virus symbols and a heat map, the resulting portrait reveals potential attitudes we might associate with these times and the uncertain future. (Redundant—when is the future ever certain?)

Here it is again, so you don’t have to scroll all the way back to the top.

Is the future a scifi-dystopian so chilled by fear and isolation (physical and social isolation) that we may as well be cyborgs? Do we leave it to social media and search engines to tell us what to do, how to feel, and who to be? Or do we emerge more connected and in ways we couldn’t have imagined before?

Do we resort to competition and hoarding—only looking out for our individual needs—or do we collaborate for the collective good?

The face that emerges from the portrait above is androgynous, much as this virus does not seem to discriminate across genders. This face is also emotionally neutral, maybe even serving as a mirror to our individual feelings of fear, strength, detachment, courage, paralysis, or whatever else you might be feeling or seeing in yourself or in this drawing. I would love to know how this sits with you, so I invite you to comment below.

This portrait of face touches was created by Serena Chan as part of the Data Visualization course, in the MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, CA.

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PS — here are some sketches and drafts of the data visualization portrait as I was trying to figure out the best way to portray face touches on the map of the face. Disclaimer: I am not a visual artist by training, and I’m also learning to practice Sh*tty First Drafts. So here they are. Process over perfection.

Glasses got a bit clunky aesthetically, so I ended up omitting them from the final version. But yes, people do touch their glasses & sunglasses. And when does anyone disinfect their eyewear?

May you be healthy, well, safe, and strong during these times. No matter where you are, who you are.

reimagining & redesigning systems toward a more equitable and regenerative future. sometimes through poetry. often alongside other dreamers. learning always.