Smiling with your eyes: Communication in a face-masked COVID-19 world
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to transform the world, millions of people are suddenly wearing face masks. But for people used to relying on facial expressions to effectively communicate, how are masks changing the way we interact? And what can we do to compensate for losing that all-important smile?
In the late 1960s a psychologist named Albert Mehrabian co-authored two influential studies investigating how important the semantic meaning of words were in regards to how people communicate emotions. Mehrabian ultimately quantified his ideas into a specific ratio, occasionally referred to as the “7:38:55 rule.”
Mehrabian’s rule suggests three elements need to be effectively co-ordinated for the successful communication of feelings or emotion: words, vocal tone, and body language. Breaking down the effect of each of these elements, Mehrabian concluded only seven percent of communication is related to the actual meaning of a given word, while 38 percent relates to tone of voice, and 55 percent is body language (primarily facial).
Mehrabian’s findings have been debated, criticized and misinterpreted over the decades. Whether or not one agrees the efficacy of communication can be reduced to such specifically quantified ratios, the general observation arguably holds strong. Effective communication stems from a congruent combination of factors beyond the specific semantic meaning of words.
So how can we effectively communicate when millions of people are suddenly required to cover two-thirds of their face?
A bigger problem for North America
Stanford psychologist Jeanne Tsai has long studied the relationship between culture and communication. She says, some cultures around the world have more experience negotiating the complexities of communication while wearing facial coverings. East Asians, for example, have long incorporated protective mask wearing into public activities. North Americans, on the other hand, in particular will likely find it very difficult to quickly learn effective communication with masks, Tsai suggests.
“The mouth seems particularly important in the United States partly because mouths are a critical part of conveying big smiles, and for Americans, bigger smiles are better,” says Tsai. “Our work finds that North Americans judge people with bigger smiles to be more friendly and trustworthy. In fact, smiles have an even stronger influence on judgments of friendliness and trustworthiness than more structural facial features associated with race or sex.”
Taking away one’s ability to smile in public settings is challenging enough but it presents particularly unique challenges in cultural contexts with pre-existing racial disparities. In the United States, for example, African American men are already expressing anxiety over being perceived as threatening while wearing face masks. A video from March showing a police officer removing two black men from a Walmart for wearing surgical masks highlighted the unique problems faced by widespread mask wearing in the United States.
“At the very least, I think people will have to learn to smile with their eyes and voices, and to read the eyes and voices of others more,” Tsai suggests.
The Duchenne Smile
In the mid-19th century French scientist Guillaume Duchenne published an iconic book titled Mecanisme de la physionomie Humaine (The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression). Duchenne was fascinated by the relationship between communication and facial anatomy and part of his research focused on the anatomical differences between a real smile and an insincere smile.
He found a simple smile involves the contraction of the zygomatic major muscle. This muscle is basically all one needs to raise the corners of their mouth. However, a truly positive, genuine and exuberant smile also involves contracting the orbicularis oculi muscle.
The orbicularis oculi muscle surrounds the eye and is primarily involved in controlling blinking. However, it also plays a role in smiling by helping raise the cheeks and create a wrinkling around the eyes. At the time, Duchenne suggested this more holistic type of smile could not be faked, and only the “sweet emotions of the soul” could lead to contraction of the orbicularis oculi.
This type of holistic smile became known as the Duchenne Smile. And, although researchers have since discovered the Duchenne Smile can indeed be faked, not everyone can easily fake it, and an exaggerated Duchenne Smile can be an effective signal someone is lying.
Interestingly, researchers have found botulinum toxin, or botox, the neurotoxin used in beauty therapies to paralyze certain facial muscles and slow the development of wrinkles, can also prevent a person from effectively contracting the orbicularis oculi muscle. A 2018 study found botox therapy does prevent a person from performing a Duchenne Smile, which not only stifles their ability to effectively communicate positive emotion, but may even induce depression as forming a facial expression has been found to strengthen the internal embodied feeling of that emotion.
Face masks are not a novel experience for everyone
While many North Americans struggle with communicating effectively in a world of newly masked faces, perhaps the best advice moving forward comes from cultures that have already adapted to this kind of behavior. For many Muslim women around the world, facial coverings, called a niqab, are normal. And both wearers and non-wearers have developed techniques to maintain effective communication.
Samar Al Zayer, a psychologist currently working in Europe, grew up in Saudi Arabia and, although she never wore a niqab, she remembers how facial coverings changed how one interpreted different social cues. Speaking to the BBC, Al Zayer recalls how communication wasn’t necessarily more difficult when one party’s face was covered, but it certainly was profoundly different.
“I would be a bit more aware of their non-verbals, keeping more eye contact to understand how they were feeling, to try and pick up on some sort of emotion,” she says. “I would be more attentive to their tone and hand gestures as well.”
The onus needs to be on both parties to overcome the limitations of communicating while wearing face masks. For those wearing masks, experts recommend using more exaggerated gestures to compensate for the loss of half of one’s face. From expressive eyebrows to a simple thumbs-up, it is suggested people amplify other elements used in communication.
“Over-communicate – use more words than you normally would, and ask more questions, to make sure you’re correctly picking up on the other person’s emotions,” says Al Zayer. “Learn how to use your other senses and body language, too.”
And if all else fails, clear masks may be on the way to save the day. ClearMask offers a simple iteration on the idea of a fully transparent face shield.
How well anti-fog technologies work in these clear masks is yet to be seen. And they probably are a little more expensive than a simple, and effective, cotton mask. But those that need a more simple and immediate solution can look to new California-based start-up Maskalike, which offers a way to simply print an image of your own smiling face onto a face mask.