Now that the world is wearing masks, we are successfully mitigating health risks but quickly losing one important aspect of our lives: smiles.  

The world seems a little less friendly when we’re wearing face coverings. Interactions with masks feel distant. I find it harder to read the emotional cues of other people. And with strangers, I can’t melt the sterile interaction with a grin. Even laughing is harder in my tight stuffy mask. 

If smiles can’t be seen, how do we greet people? How do we compensate for lost facial cues that people rely on to connect with others? 

“Smiling is critical for us to determine friendliness and trust,” says  Jeanne Tsai, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Culture and Emotion Lab. So how do we reassure each other while masked? 

Workarounds

I’m seeing innovative solutions to help. For example, there are now novel designs that show or even emulate the smile behind the mask. 

Etsy Bright Designs Signs

Also, people are wearing masks with designs such as music notes, peace signs, wine glasses or animals, sharing things they love, their hobbies or an artistic talent. 

Some people compensate by talking more to communicate their once facial expressions.  If I speak too much, actually, my glasses fog up . . so I’ve started using my other gestures, like excessive hand waving to say, “Hi, neighbor. I care.”

Kristina Wong smiles and rapidly waves her hands in the air. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Eyes are the windows to the soul even when facial expressions are unknown

Millions of women around the world wear face veils and body robes and are able to communicate. It is amazing how much expression is in and around the eyes alone. 

Even above a mask, you can see the raised cheeks and narrowed but sparkling eyes that indicate a smile. A genuine smile, known as the Duchenne smile, activates the muscles around the eyes. Fake social smiles are the ones we lose when our mouths are covered.

Women who wear a niqab say that a niqab is much more comfortable than a medical face mask (Credit: Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images)

Studies have revealed 19 different types of smiles—yet only six are associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure. Ironically, the rest are used in negative situations like when we are scared, nervous and in pain.

So, facial expressions can be misleading, warns Aleix Martinez, a professor at Ohio State University. “We don’t have to be happy to smile, and we don’t always smile when we’re happy.” The most effective way to read emotion is to study body posture, motion, context, hand gestures, words, pitch and tone, he says.

The most effective way to read emotion is to study body posture, motion, context, hand gestures, words, pitch and tone.

– Aleix Martinez, a professor at Ohio State University

Masks make it more difficult to read the emotions of others. They not only hide grins but make it harder for people to display a wide range of emotions including discomfort, worry or sadness.

Our other senses help us “hear” and feel emotions when we don’t have facial cues

We can detect when someone smiles or looks serious. Whether a person is sad, angry or happy, it’s expressed not only through with facial expressions, but also in the way they move and talk. 

And it’s been studied that even if we cannot see facial cues, we can feel the emotions of others through their other body movements. If we see a person smiling, internal neurons ensure that we mirror the smile, often making us feel better. In a Scientific American-reported study, participants imitated the smile of another person even when that individual’s mouth and nose were covered.

“People can ‘hear’ when someone smiles because it changes in the shape of the mouth, causing the voice to become brighter,” explained Ursula Hess, a facial expression and emotion researcher at Humboldt University of Berlin in Germany.

Maria Ali, 34, from Pakistan wears a niqab and says she’s never had any problems communicating with other niqabi women, even if they’re strangers. “With their gestures and voice, you can understand what they mean.”

Medical professionals are adapting their style too

Dr. Josh Trebach, an emergency medicine physician at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, misses the nonverbal cues that helped make patients more comfortable. “I would want to smile to assuage someone’s anxiety, show interest or convey warmth to let a patient know that they could trust me,” he said. “Suddenly, all of that is gone.”

To compensate, he’s changing up his own body language and using more nonverbal cues. For example, he makes direct eye contact, nods, uses more verbal expressions, shows more pictures and is even more expressive with his eyebrow movement.

Highlight of the Week: See-through masks

Brian Travers, a former doctor who lost his hearing in 2002, learned how to sew for the first time this Spring. 

After he struggled to communicate with people in masks, he decided to make some with clear panels. He relied on lip reading and masks meant he no longer understood people around him. He often felt helpless. When he asked employees if they’d lower their masks so he could read their lips, they refused. He certainly understands that’s safer. But he was stuck. 

He soon transformed his new skills into a way to help people who are deaf and hard of hearing. “I completed a few hundred orders. I have a few hundred orders that are waiting and they’re still coming in. It is not just the product, it is the purpose. I am honored about that.”

It is not just the product, it is the purpose.

Michael Conley, left, talks with Ingrid Helton, the costume director at the San Diego Opera. Mr. Conley, who is deaf, is wearing a mask with a window that shows his face. The masks make lip-reading possible for people with impaired hearing. Credit… Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Challenge of the Week: Do your part to enhance understanding when using a mask

In response to COVID-19, people are wearing masks and/or standing six feet apart. This presents some new challenges for everyone on how best to connect and communicate. Often it’s hard not only to read someone’s emotions, but even to hear their voice clearly. 

Check out these tips and ideas to improve your interactions and increase understanding through your mask.

There are things we can all do to communicate better and make interactions more effective, though. They include how we present ourselves and also how well we observe the body language, gestures and tone of others. Check out these tips and ideas to improve your interactions and increase understanding through your mask.

Kendall Webb, Executive Director

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