The Impact of Losing the Smile Behind the Mask

A masked world disrupts our ability to connect at an emotional level with others. How can we replace the smile and communicate effectively in new ways?

A smile has a magical power; it makes everyone smile back.” ― Debasish Mridha.

Due to the increased risk of Covid, to be more safe than sorry, I recently decided to wear a mask whenever I choose to do the family shop at the local supermarket.   However, I was not prepared for the unexpected challenge: nobody can see you smile.

The beautiful quote by Goldie Hawn eloquently expresses the power of a smile. “I have witnessed the softening of the hardest of hearts by a simple smile.”

A smile has always been an easy way of defusing social tensions. I had been reliant on a polite smile to overcome shopping-cart traffic jams and accidental intrusions of personal space, but now this multipurpose social tool was gone.

Trying to interact with other humans without being able to smile is the facial equivalent of communicating via text message; it’s easy to be misunderstood.

Emotion recognition is important from an evolutionary perspective as it helps us gauge threat and can also facilitate positive social interactions. That’s true of both people we know well and those we have never met.

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COVID‐19 has brought the world more than just a pandemic disease. It has also brought a radical change in how human interact and communicate.

Similar to how mobile phones are now a semi‐permanent accessory to our hand or pocket; masks now function for many in the same way on our faces. The number of people choosing to wear a mask in social situations is increasing as an added level of protection against the virus.

While covid masks are here to protect us, they also create social challenges and frictions.

What will be the long term impact and effects on communication?

The magnitude with which covering our faces affects our social interactions and ability to understand and interpret one another cannot be overlooked.

Obscuring part of our face is having a detrimental effect on how some of us communicate with each other.

By limiting the available visual area of our faces, masks make it extremely challenging to display and perceive each other’s facial expressions.  Whether subconscious or intentional, our facial expressions are one of our most critical forms of communication, predominantly with regard to expressing and perceiving each other’s emotions.

Without these critical and necessary mechanisms of social interaction individuals will struggle to modify their behaviour in order to align with social communication and new behavioural norms.

A British study found that people look at each other only 30-60% of the time when talking.

In a society in which communication has historically been 55% facial, it becomes critical to find answers to our diminished ability to communicate in a positive way via facial expressions that are hidden under a mask barrier.

What emotions do our faces reveal?

Humans have evolved to communicate using facial expressions that are largely universally shared and understood between cultures. We have been communicating through facial expressions for thousands of years.

We express many different emotions on our faces – excitement, calm, and happiness as well as anger, sadness, and fear.  Scholars have been interested in the face as a channel for expressing our emotions since Charles Darwin.

Psychologists in the 1960s and 70s, like Paul Ekman, turned to trying to categorize and measure emotions through facial expression.  Ekman argued there exists six universally facial expressions of emotion regardless of culture:

When it comes to reading faces, the eyes and mouth are the most informative areas since they tend to be the most communicative.

We subconsciously analyse their movements to understand what someone is trying to tell us.  Each part has the ability to independently convey an emotion of happiness, sadness or anger well.

What happens when our faces are hidden behind a facial covering?

Today, masks act as powerful and direct hindrances to our ability to understand and empathize with one another.

Since most masks block the bottom half of the face, it has become significantly more difficult to recognize a mask‐wearer’s positive emotions such as happiness or friendliness which are largely communicated by a smile.

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As people navigate a masked world, they will need to focus more on the eyes and voice to connect with those around them. At the very least, people will have to learn to smile with their eyes and voices, and to read the eyes and voices of others.

How can we show others we are friendly?

Face coverings are going to be with us for some time and will present a number of issues to overcome relating to communicating with each other.

Concealing the facial region can be problematic when wanting to come across as approachable and friendly.

This issue has been confronted by frontline healthcare workers. In a bid to ease patient anxiety they have taken to placing smiley-faced pictures of themselves onto their medical gowns.

What are some communication strategies that people can use when trying to connect with other masked people?

Wearing masks can make communication more demanding.

Masks muffle sound, and make it more difficult to understand what is being said.  The lack of visual cues limits our ability to read lips and see facial expressions, which help us better understand what we’re hearing.  

Tips for Communicating While Wearing a Mask 

  • Make sure you have your communication partner’s attention. 
  • Face your partner directly, and make sure nothing is blocking your view.
  • Talk a little louder.
  • Talk a little slower.
  • Use your hands and your body language.
  • Ask your partner if they understood you; if not, say it a different way or write it down.
  • Move to a quiet place if you can.
  • If you’re talking with someone new, ask if there’s anything you can do to make communication easier for both of you

Body language is vital to best deliver meaning and effectively communication.

A smile is an easy way to defuse social tensions; however is this still possible when a mask is covering the bottom half of our face? Nonverbal cues, like a wave or nod, can compensate for the lack of a social smile.

Even though we’ve lost the bottom halves of our faces, other things, have become stronger in terms of communication, like body language or eyes.

Body language, hand gestures and posture are most important. Your non-verbal cues should send message of kindness and empathy.

•             Relax your shoulders

•             Try not to cross your arms in front of your body

•             Try to keep your hands off your hips and out of your pockets

•             Nod when appropriate to acknowledge you are listening and understanding

•             Use your eyes and eyebrows. Good eye contact is most important. Let your eyebrows tell the story.

•             Happiness can be seen by raised eyebrows, raised cheeks and crow’s feet

•             Eyebrows pinched together and eyes drooping can indicate sadness

•             Eyebrows in a “V” can mean angry

The alternatives in face masks that may help overcome communication issues

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Society may need to continue to adapt to the advent of mask‐wearing in ways that minimize the psychosocial impact it induces.

Different types of masks and barriers can help people communicate more easily.

Some companies may have addressed this challenge. A positive unique solution has been the development of the first transparent mask that provides full‐face visibility.

If face masks are here to stay, then clear masks could fix our awkward communication problems in everyday interactions.

A number of companies are currently working on clear face masks such as Cliu. This Italian based company has made a face mask which has a transparent panel over the mouth area that allows people to communicate more easily, however costing maybe a restrictive to the general population.

What does the future hold?

Mask wearing is in the early days, and it’s probably going to be around for some time to come.

So while mask-wearing has been common for years in some Asian countries, mass uptake among Westerners will be a big shift for citizens who value personal freedoms.

How will countries cope with populations that are more jittery in each other’s company and suspicious of their fellow citizens?

Masks, part of the greater universe of face coverings, stir up long-held stereotypes that frame the person behind the mask as dangerous or suspicious, rather than caring or considerate. We doubt of what we cannot see.

However, if masks become common, they can serve as a personal reminder of how one should behave in public. It connects us. It’s an expression of solidarity.

The truth is that a face mask actually helps both you and your community.

So how do we learn to adapt and adjust, especially when there are different levels of awareness and understanding?

If you have any thoughts or comments around this subject I would love to hear from you.

It affects us all in so many ways, therefore when we share our feelings we gain a better understand of the person in front of us wearing the mask.  

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