Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

I See You but I Don’t: How Masks Alter Human Connection

They can disrupt our ability to communicate and connect. But there are ways to overcome a mask’s necessary downsides.

In a series of pioneering studies conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles during the 1960s, a psychologist named Albert Mehrabian sought to catalog and quantify the importance of spoken words, voice tone, posture, gestures, facial expressions, and other forms of verbal and nonverbal communication.

The question at the heart of Mehrabian’s studies: What do people rely on most when trying to understand one another? His counterintuitive takeaway was that the stuff a person says seems to matter much less than how that person acts, sounds, gestures, and emotes as they say it.

“A huge percentage of communication is nonverbal,” agrees Mark Frank, PhD, a professor and chair of the Department of Communication at the University at Buffalo. Anyone who has ever sent a text or email that was horribly misconstrued by its recipient can understand this, but Frank offers a helpful example. “If I say, ‘You’re being a jerk,’ but you can see my smile, you know that I’m kidding,” he says. Take away the smile, and the kidding goes with it.

These days, the presence or absence of the smile is top of mind for academics like Frank. In response to Covid-19, masks are now mandatory in some settings and recommended in many others. While there was a brief period of mask skepticism when the virus first appeared, public health officials are now in broad agreement that masks reduce the likelihood of virus transmission.

“When you walk past someone or have an interaction where they can’t see that smile because of a mask, you’re losing something that conveys to other people that you’re friendly and polite and approachable.”

Face masks hide what words can’t say

While masks save lives, they also create social challenges and frictions. “Words alone are not enough to communicate our attitudes, our feelings, our thoughts, and all the other stuff that is important for creating social and emotional bonds between people,” says David Matsumoto, PhD, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and founder of Humintell, a research and training firm specializing in nonverbal communication.

Matsumoto calls all the different types of verbal and nonverbal exchange the “total communication package,” and says that masks may impede more elements of communication than most people assume. “There are some emotions that are expressed solely in the lower part of the face,” he explains. Disgust and contempt are two examples.

The loss of those emotions in public spaces probably isn’t a huge deal. But Matsumoto also says that “social smiling” — the kind of fleeting grin that you flash at a neighbor as you pass on the street, or offer the checkout person at the grocery store — is typically a mouth-only smile. While some regard this sort of smile as “fake,” at least when compared to a smile of deep mirth or delight, which tends to also crinkle the corners of the eyes, Matsumoto says social smiles are nonetheless meaningful. “People discount these smiles, but they play an important role in greasing the rails of politeness,” he says.

U. at Buffalo’s Frank likewise emphasizes the importance of the social smile, especially at a time when Covid-19 is leaving many feeling isolated and anxious. “When you walk past someone or have an interaction where they can’t see that smile because of a mask, you’re losing something that conveys to other people that you’re friendly and polite and approachable,” he explains.

Research supports this: One 2013 study in a hospital setting found that patients perceived doctors who wore masks as less caring and empathetic. At a time of widespread worry and tension, concealing social smiles behind masks may contribute to feelings of danger, isolation, or paranoia, Frank says.

Repercussions of lost nonverbal communication

Masks may present some other, more acute perils. “Say you’re walking past a security guard at a store or talking to a cop,” Matsumoto says. “These are situations where knowing about intentions is extremely important, and the lack of full communication has consequences.” In these scenarios, minor misunderstandings can lead to life-and-death altercations. And, already, some news outlets have reported instances of black men being harassed for wearing masks in stores or public places.

Masks may also foster misunderstandings. “We all use lip reading without realizing it,” says Chris Frith, PhD, a professor emeritus of neuropsychology at University College London who has studied the role of facial expressions in communication. Frith says that people may misconstrue what others are saying if they can’t see people’s mouths moving as they talk. And this is especially true for those who are hard of hearing — a group that is already at risk for anger and depression as a result of their condition, and for whom masks could exacerbate these challenges.

Masks may impede more elements of communication than most people assume. “There are some emotions that are expressed solely in the lower part of the face.”

A potential solution: Use more gestures

The good news, says Frith, is that the eyes and eyebrows are very important for nonverbal communication. Taking extra care to look at someone as you speak to them may help lower the odds of a misunderstanding or miscommunication.

There are other ways to make up for any mask-related communication deficits. “Use more gestures,” advises Matsumoto. The use of waves, thumbs-ups, head nods, and so on, reinforce what you’re saying, and so can improve the odds that you and whoever you’re talking with stay on the same page. “I think the big thing is to be more conscious of what is potentially lost,” he says.

Finally, it’s not a bad idea to inject a little fun and flair into your mask’s styling. Frank says that American culture is very individualistic, and people should feel free to express their passions and personalities in their masks — just as they do in their clothing, their cars, their social media profiles, and so on. Sporting a mask with smiley faces, an inspirational message, or your favorite football team’s logo is just another nonverbal way to communicate with others and to let them know you’re not letting a tough situation pull you down.

“I think in some cases the mask could be a kind of common bond,” he adds. “You’re wearing a mask and I’m wearing a mask. We’re in this together.”

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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