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Optical illusions

WORKSHOP OF GIULIO ROMANO (Rome c. 1499-Mantua 1546) — Nero Playing while Rome Burns — WIKIMEDIA.ORG

“OPTICS,” in the sociopolitical sense, refers to how an action or event is perceived by others. Something that is not illegal may still be seen as inappropriate for the times or for a particular personality.

What about the leader heading off to watch a car race in another country using a government plane? (Of course, it was a productive visit. The best time to pursue foreign investments is on a weekend sports event.) How did the “resignations” of cabinet members even before they were formally approved by the legislative body look? (It’s part of the first hundred days’ initiative for rightsizing.)

In history, we see an example of bad optics.

Was Nero really playing the lyre while Rome burned? The discordance between a leisure activity in a time of crisis qualifies as bad optics.

Image handlers then may have tried to explain away perception of such unseemly apathy. The knee-jerk reaction is avoiding the topic altogether and hiding from the inquisitive media. This avoidance strategy buys time to spin an acceptable narrative.

Once cornered, the spokesperson may simply issue a denial of the awkward situation. Nero doesn’t even have a lyre and can’t play one if his life depended on it. Or … he was with the firemen at that time and the lyre incident was a week before at his nephew’s wedding. Finally, in a huffy attempt to change the narrative: Isn’t it more important to find out who caused the fire that destroyed 10 districts of Rome rather than asking about musical numbers?

The relevance of optics is not limited to politics. Businessmen who have liquidity problems, past due loans, and unpaid suppliers try mightily to convince their creditors that they need time and support. Can they start buying condos in other countries and order corporate jets? Bad optics.

An IPO being launched does not project good optics if original investors start dumping their shares the day that the lock-up period expires. Is this a case of losing confidence on the potential upside of the stock? Even when the shares in question are a small percentage of the public float, the timing, identity of the sellers, and the early stumble of the share’s price all combine to produce bad optics.

Optics may start out to be merely perceptions, but they do lead to real consequences. To quote a take on the optics of influence: the perception of power is power. The inverse is true as well: the perception of weakness is real.

Thus, losing previously occupied territories in Ukraine starts the narrative of defeat for the invader. The counter-narrative of a referendum leading to an annexation of additional land mass through a hurried and forced referendum is perceived as an optical illusion.

Personal relationships are not exempt from the optical rule, especially when involving celebrities. Can someone caught in the elevator after a supposed inappropriate attack be smiling and not looking at all upset be a credible victim of sexual assault?

A couple, seen together in a bar sampling oysters, projects the optics of being an item, even if only temporarily — we have this podcast of reviewing bars for their tapas. A young and fetching female holding hands with an elderly gentleman near a bank branch in a mall provide the optics of a pending ATM cash withdrawal, usually by the latter. (Is she a caregiver?)

Some can dismiss the fuss over “how things look,” as in the case of anonymous individuals. Still, a job applicant who looks disheveled and spaced out is likely to be rejected in favor of a neat and well-spoken alternative, even when the former may have better credentials and work experience.

Okay, just minding impressions and appearances can be a shallow exercise. In creative endeavors like movie production or advertising, looking too nattily attired and clean-shaven can be a disadvantage. Here different optics rule. Creativity favors funky tattoos and the rumpled demeanor of somebody who just woke up and went to a client pitch without taking a bath. As for footwear, battered sneakers win the day. Disheveled optics project creativity.

There may be the admonition not to judge a book by its cover. But in a shelf with many books, the one with a nice cover is the one opened first and read. For e-books though, a good review sways the selection.

Optics are not always illusions. Often, they are unintended revelations.

Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda

ar.samson@yahoo.com

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