Mask wearing, however laudable it has been, and still is, as the world finds its way back to normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic, has in some ways cast a monkey wrench into normal interpersonal relations.
We evolved looking at other human faces to search for meaning, and as a way to facilitate crucial interpersonal information and communication. And it’s not hard to imagine how this came about from back in times when imminent danger was present but speaking was impossible to just the everyday effort of trying to get along and pick up on the many interpersonal clues that we constantly convey.
Masks have been used throughout human history for dramatic effect in many ways – in ceremonial dances, for example. And Greece is no exception. In Ancient Greek times, masks were important props in the theater, with their exaggerated expressions helping define the characters the actors were playing.
Of course, they also allowed actors to play more than one role, or gender, in every play; they helped audience members in the distant seats see and understand what was going on, and, by projecting sound almost like a small megaphone, they enabled the audience to better hear the actors.
But almost never in human history, except for a brief time during the 1918 flu epidemic, have humans masked their faces in society as much as we have since March of 2020. We are so programmed to intuit meaning and communication clues by looking at the human face that the past year has brought this vital type of interpersonal connection into focus.
It is surely among the most unnatural things for humans to not be able to see the entire face of another person as they speak with them—or even just pass them by, because of mask wearing.
Face mask wearing alters human communication—and not for the better
Although, of course, we have all been treated to an occasional glimpse of a lovely “smize,” or eye smile, from someone else over the top of their face covering this past pandemic year. Masks still somehow kept us feeling as if we were missing something important, as if we lacked some vital clues to our environment.
It may seem a bit much to complain about not being able to take in interpersonal clues from other people in the midst of what the world has gone through this past year.
But experts are unified in their belief that mask wearing has indeed interfered with the way people have always—since they began evolving—looked at the faces of other individuals for clues into their motivations and for vital interpersonal communication.
And we are not alone in this feeling. During the great influenza epidemic of 1918, the face mask wearing was also de rigueur although that was basically forgotten until the coronavirus pandemic.
Noah Y. Kim, in a recent article called “How the 1918 Pandemic Frayed Social Bonds,” spoke of the atmosphere that swirled as many young people were cut down by the Spanish Flu.
“As hospitals filled with patients and American cities went into lockdown, many people alternated between alarm and amusement, panicking about the pandemic one moment and joking about it the next,” Kim writes.
One young Seattle girl “was especially entertained by a directive requiring Seattle residents to wear masks in public. ‘Gee!’ she wrote. ‘People will look funny—like ghosts.’”
Nour Mheidly, Mohamad Y. Fares, Hussein Zalzale, and Jawad Fares published a scientific paper on just this subject recently in the journal Frontiers in Public Health. Titled the “Effect of Face Masks on Interpersonal Communication During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” the article explores the role of facial expressions in communication.
Its authors highlight not only exactly how face masks can hinder interpersonal connection but also offer “coping strategies and skills that can ease communication with face masks as we navigate the current and any future pandemic.”
Shifts in social paradigms necessitated by pandemic
They admit that “Interpersonal communication has been severely affected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Protective measures, such as social distancing and face masks, are essential to mitigate efforts against the virus, but pose challenges on daily face-to-face communication.”
The scientists point out, however, that “Face masks, particularly, muffle sounds and cover facial expressions that ease comprehension during live communication.”
The COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the way people all over the world communicate with each other in every possible way. Precautionary measures to limit the spread of the virus necessitated a shift in the communication paradigm when it came to greetings and handshakes.
The difficult situation required people to adopt salutations that do not entail physical contact, such as the “peace sign,” the “hand on chest,” and the “namaste”—not to mention the now-ubiquitous, jaunty “elbow bump.”
In addition, emphasis on greatly-increased personal space and social distancing markedly increased during the pandemic, with telecommunication frequently taking the place of normal daily human interactions, as business meetings, conferences, and almost all educational activities shifted to virtual communication via Zoom, Cisco Webex, Skype, Facebook chats, and Microsoft Teams.
Face-to-face communication was deeply affected by the pandemic, as the scientists note “The need for face masks, as an important protective measure to decrease the spread of the virus, had a huge toll on interpersonal communication.”
Nonverbal clues are 55 percent of all communication
Facial expressions and gestures play a major role in facilitating interpersonal communication, comprehension, and the delivery of intended messages. As such, wearing face masks hindered the ability of seeing and understanding people’s expressions during conversations, and decreased the impact of communicated material.
“People perceive facial expressions off one another, and this helps them forecast events and situations, and develop responses to them,” the authors state in their paper.
They go on to say that “Nonverbal communication, such as facial gestures and expressions, constitutes 55% of our overall communication. The eyes and the mouth are the two main organs that help in reading others ‘faces.
“By wearing face masks, people are inclined to focus more on the eyes to be able to understand the facial expressions intended,” the authors say. “Eye contact can be used to show empathy and concern for others, to manage feelings, to express interest, or to help with communication.”
However, this poses another problem as the contact can be a bit too intense at times, they state: “Prolonged eye contact can result in uncomfortable feelings sometimes, as it can magnify actual interest in communicated material or convey signs of aggression.”
They explain further that “The face, as an anatomical figure, can be separated into upper, middle, and lower portions, with each playing an important role in expressing the feelings and moods of an individual.”
“For example, actions like smiling and grimacing involve lower facial structures,” the authors write, “like the mouth, the lips, and the cheeks, and these are often included in our daily conversations.”
Lower facial features the most expressive of all
Different emotions as shown in facial expressions involve what scientists call “action units,” or elementary changes in facial appearance recognized by something called the “Facial Action Coding System,” which taxonomizes human facial movements by their appearance on the face.
The scientists say that these facial expressions are produced by sets of facial muscles. The middle face involves the “nose wrinkle,” an action unit that wrinkles and pulls the skin upward along the sides of the nose; this is used to convey disgust.
The lower face involves multiple action units; these include the “chin raiser,” the “lip stretcher,” the “lip tightener,” the “lips part,” and the “jaw drop.” Each of these is also associated with a set of facial muscles that convey a specific emotion.
The “chin raiser” pushes the boss of the chin and the lower lip upward, while the “lip tightener” causes lips to appear narrower; both action units are used to convey anger.
The “lips stretcher” stretches lips horizontally, and the “lips part” separates them to a limited extent; both action units are used to convey fear. In addition, the “jaw drop” parts lips so that the space between the teeth is visible and this is used to convey surprise.
The middle and lower face—the parts of the face that are covered by masks—”are noted to be very influential with regards to emotional recognition,” according to the authors, and the mouth is the most common part of the face that can express happiness.
“While the upper face is also pivotal for the development of emotional expressions, the roles of the middle and lower face cannot be understated,” write the authors, and “face masks eliminate the roles of the middle and lower face in emotional expression, rendering its action units invisible to the receiving individual.”
Furthermore, people with special needs and hearing disabilities often rely on sign language and lip reading to communicate. Covering the lower part of the face (nose, cheeks, mouth, tooth, nose, and chin) adversely affected their understanding of communicated information and made them feel even more disabled and ostracized.
“As a result, emotional perception decreases and the role of the upper face in emotional expression increases in significance,” the scientists say. Face masks cover the middle and the lower portions of the face. As such, facial expressions involving the mouth, lips, teeth, and nose are masked during interpersonal communication.
Happiness is usually perceived when the corners of the lips rise upward. With face masks, happiness can be caught on the face only by focusing on the wrinkles at the edge of the eyes, they note.
Sadness involves movement of the eyebrows, the nasolabial folds, and the corners of the lips; however, the last two are masked by face masks.
Facial expression of anger emphasizes the downward and central movement of eyebrows, the glaring eyes, and narrowing of the corners of the lips, with the latter getting covered by face masks.
Furthermore, expressions of surprise and shock are usually formed of elevated eyebrows and a raised upper lip; only the latter is covered by protective masks.
Nose wrinkling and raising of the upper lip, for example, convey feelings of disgust; however, face masks cover both expressions.
Finally, feelings of guilt are usually portrayed by slightly upping eyebrows together and stretching the mouth, with the latter getting covered with a face mask.
The SARS outbreak of the early 2000s was particularly troublesome for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the researchers relate. Face mask wearing became a cultural sign of respect and a social contract with others.
Nevertheless, in the West, not being able to see the nose, mouth, and cheeks during interpersonal communication “will necessitate further adaptation,” the authors state.
Coping strategies still important
There are ways to continue to cope with mask wearing, the scientists say. Non-verbal communications “are essential in facilitating the communication process, have a vast influence on the social environment, and can come in different forms, such as facial expressions, body movements, and eye messages,” the scientists say, which “can support or substitute for verbal communication.”
Utilizing and recognizing the upper face through the eyebrows, eyes, and upper cheeks during interpersonal communication is also important, as well as speaking louder—and slower—in quieter settings.
The authors state that the manufacture and use of transparent face masks or face shields also helps a great deal in making these common interpersonal connections easier to make once again.
“People will be able to see each other’s facial expressions and emotions without threatening their personal protection,” the authors write. “This will also allow people with special needs to communicate easily and understand conversations.”
“The elderly and individuals with hearing impairment rely heavily on facial expressions for communication [and] cloth and surgical facemasks hinder their ability to understand and indulge in meaningful conversations,” the authors reveal. “The use of transparent face masks will help those individuals read lips and have proper dialogues.”
In addition, they say, “developing coping strategies and skills that can ease our communication with face masks is crucial in our efforts to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and any other pandemic that might erupt in the future.”