What’s Missing When We Talk While Wearing Our Protective Masks?

It’s not really a question that’s been lingering in our minds for inordinate amounts of time, but given the current situation, it’s pertinent to understand how communication and understanding is affected whilst wearing a mask.

Talking is more than words

All of us rely on being able to judge other people’s language by not only hearing, but also seeing. Our brains take in a lot of data, simultaneously, in order to paint an ‘overall’ picture during conversation with another person. Not only does our brain hear the sounds, but it also considers the context of what’s being said as well as the way the mouth moves. This all applies to the emotional data that enables us to make far more informed decisions and deductions for better understanding.

Therefore, when communicating with a mask, repeating what you’re saying is considered to be a great barrier-breaker because most of what we say with a mask can be construed as negative because of existing biases that we all have.

Missing out on the ‘Duchenne smile’

When looking at other people in ordinary situations, we’re trying to get what we call ‘theory of mind’ where we formulate an idea of how they feel based on their facial expressions and other non-verbal communication cues. The ‘Duchenne smile’ is the universal signal (smile) that things are good with someone – it’s when the mouth and eyes smile at you. This is especially true when it happens for more than three seconds. It’s a valuable cue to tell us that things are well and so we tend to drop our guard and respond accordingly.

So, when we don’t get enough information (cues) then our instinct tends towards pessimism as opposed to optimism, which is often the case while wearing a mask.

Observing the biggest changes since masks have become necessary

  • Less eye contact, even with people who live together – wearing a mask tends to make us feel ‘fearful’ or apprehensive in some way towards another and so our natural instinct is to look away and retreat from what our instinctive self might construe as ‘danger’.
  • Non-verbal workarounds have started popping up where people have started wearing badges or pins where they have a photo of their full (smiling) face in a full Duchenne smile. Other great options are masks that have a smile on the front, or are clear at the area of the mouth so that a smile can easily be seen.
  • Develop better eye contact with more people during this time.
  • Try to avoid crossing your arms or using aggressive stances.
  • Try and let people know that you know they’re there and try a little bit of optimism if you can!

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