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The Effect of Masks on Communication

By Grace Dearing, Web Editor

Since the beginning of time, humans have adapted to the ever-evolving trends of communication. From the early script and telegraphs to telephones and now instant messaging, communication has progressed rapidly. One variable that has remained consistent, though, is our reliance on facial expressions to intimately converse with the people around us. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, so too do state mandates for masks and facial coverings in public spaces. While this new fashion accessory is perfect for preventing the spread of the virus, it is less than ideal for communicating with our friends and family. Since masks cover more than half of our faces, it has become increasingly challenging to read each other’s facial expressions. 

Photo by Elliott Magenheim

In June of 2020, Rebecca Brewer, an expert in facial expressions and communication, told BBC that humans are familiar with processing faces as a whole, rather than focusing on individual features. Therefore, when the entire face is not visible, the processing is interrupted. 

Rachelle Gaddes, assistant general manager at an Old Navy store in Cincinnati, spends the majority of her workday interacting with customers and experiences processing interruption first-hand. 

“It can be extremely hard to hear customers or ask and answer their questions,” she says. “I’ve had customers complain multiple times that an associate was rude to them, but really it’s just that they couldn’t read their emotions.” 

But, there’s no denying that the benefits of a mask during a global pandemic far offset its limitations. 

Photo by Elliott Magenheim

“The health and safety of my staff, my customers and myself outweigh the negative sides of the mask,” Gaddes says. “It’s not always enjoyable, but I’d rather wear the mask than risk anything.” 

Although conversational limitations like this are strange to the majority of people, especially in the U.S., the concept of facial coverings is not new. Many Asian countries have utilized masks to protect themselves against pollution, and millions of women around the world regularly wear veils and other facial coverings for religious and cultural practices. 

Humans around the world have communicated extremely well with face coverings, but countries newer to this practice must adapt to the “new normal” rather than fear it. There are ways to gauge somebody’s emotion, other than facial expressions, which can be used when talking to someone in person.

Photo by Elliott Magenheim

Eye Contact

Though it may be obvious, humans are not used to making direct eye contact throughout their conversations. Catching someone’s gaze and holding it while they speak can feel extremely intimate and intense, but it helps gauge emotions. 

It sounds cheesy, but the eyes are the window to the soul. As much as someone’s emotions are shown on their face through actions like smiling and frowning, that emotion is amplified in the eyes. Emotions visible through eye contact are unavoidable and are much more difficult to hide. 

Body Language 

Whether talking with hands or posture, people’s bodies say more about them than initially realized. If someone fiddles with their hands, they may be nervous. If they stand completely upright with their shoulders squared toward the person they are addressing, they are probably feeling confident. On the other hand, if their shoulders are slouched, they may be upset. All of these movements signify how the person is feeling at that moment.

The everyday presence of masks in interactions can make it feel like there is a barrier between us and the person we are trying to have a meaningful conversation with. That barrier can be disheartening for people who thrive on social interactions and aren’t used to encountering these difficulties. Though it does not seem as though mask mandates will be lifted any time soon, the quality of human connection does not have to suffer forever. Like many things in life during the COVID-19 pandemic, communication will simply adapt to the current state of the world.

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