We used to convey joy with a grin, express sympathy with a downturned lip, invite people in with a welcoming smile and a flash of teeth. Now, we're wearing masks. With more than half of a face covered, communication is affected — whether we're aware of it or not.
"This is a really big shift because reading those facial expressions is so primally wired for us,” says Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma. “It's a big barrier — much bigger than we realize.” So how can we show our sadness, glee or anger while still protecting ourselves and others from COVID-19?
Pam Holbrook, 65, a Gainesville, Florida, preschool teacher, wore a mask indoors this summer while caring for 3-year-olds during a five-week camp. It was challenging to connect with her students, but with some thought, she worked around the mask.
"You can do a lot with your hands,” Holbrook says. “I try to be aware of what my eyes are doing, and you need to overdo it with your voice.”
Holbrook says she also realized that pre-coronavirus she would often smile a hello at adults and not speak. Now she tells them what's going on under her mask. “I feel I need to say, ‘I'm smiling. Good morning,’ “ she says. “You don't want misunderstandings, so you need to do things like that."
Name emotions out loud
Body language experts say that with a bit of deliberate effort and attention we can make sure our emotions come through — even with a mask. “I teach a lot about shoulders now,” says Alison Henderson, CEO of Moving Image Consulting, based in Chicago. Shoulder gestures will register in someone's eye view if they're looking at your face, she says.
Eyes are already very expressive, Henderson says, but she's advising people to over-emote and use their eyebrows. “I've been telling people to think about cartoon eyes, when the eyes bug out,” she says.
Dentist Bill Cranford, 65 says he makes sure front desk employees at his Rock Hill, South Carolina, practice present friendly demeanors and an expressive tone of voice now that they're wearing masks. For Cranford and his whole staff, it's important to put people at ease when they get dental work done.
"There's a lot that goes on in your voice quality and inflection and in your body language,” he says. Patients can sense — through the lines on the forehead or the wrinkles by the eyes — if a person is smiling under the mask, he says. “We tell our staff to smile, even though [patients] can't see their teeth."