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.

Markham Heid
Published in
5 min readMay 21, 2020

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.”

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Markham Heid

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.