Updated: Sep 15
How masks are affecting how we interact with others by Myesha Hossain
With masks becoming part of our face during the Covid-19 pandemic, they can serve as a double-edged sword as they protect our health but change the way we engage in interpersonal relationships. With almost 50% of our faces covered, it can be challenging to feel connected to someone when we lose access to some of the important expressions a person can engage in. This isn’t solely confined to romantic or dating experiences. Think about how pivotal it is for students to connect with their educators and other school key-players. Without that rich facial context, especially for youth still developing such nonverbal skills, important information can be missed, and social situations can be misinterpreted.
What are micro-expressions, and what makes them so interesting?
There are the obvious expressions we can read easily, such as happiness when getting a gift card with over $100 or fear if you are surrounded by fire with no escape. Some emotions can be unanimously agreed upon when analyzing them since they are that obvious and noticeable. People usually do not have to hide these emotions since they are socially appropriate to experience.
Micro-expressions, on the other hand, are not as easy to decipher or pay attention to. However, these are the expressions we want to become extremely literate in since they reveal the emotions people try to conceal from us. They show the emotions that people are trying to hide since it is not the proper emotion to have at times. That’s why we know what a joke versus a serious accusation from someone is, even if they try to laugh it off.
To notice that someone is actively displaying a false emotion, it requires you to focus on them intensely. You see, micro-expressions are just that, present for a micro part of time - lasting for 1/15 to 1/25 of a second.
For the untrained liar, micro-expressions are involuntary - many people can catch on to them since they are bad liars. The trained liars (the extreme side can be sociopaths) can control their micro-expressions, letting very few slip - misleading someone even more. Frontiers in Psychology published an interesting study from 2018, which stated that micro-expressions play a role in distinguishing truths from lies about someone’s intention to wrong you again. Earlier studies show findings that the brain is engaging in war among itself -- one system controlling what you want others to see, and the other system suppresses what you want to hide. However, we are all human, so occasionally we let the truth slip, but it’s during such a small period that most people can miss it and misread someone’s true intentions.
Even happiness can be misinterpreted -- some smiles and laughs are fake and exaggerated, just to spare others embarrassment and shame for not being as funny. Have you ever faked happiness for a gift that you didn’t like or feigned shock for a surprise you already knew about? And you tried to do a good job with your body and face? Then you know what I’m talking about! Sometimes it can be harmless to hide our emotions or go along with it, and other times we have to be good at detecting when someone is hiding their true intentions (think about the lover who covers their tracks, so they don’t get accused of cheating and face the consequences).
Knowing how to read the room and connect with others
Why does this matter if we can read micro-expressions or not? Masks have been a recent addition to what seems typical in our lives. Micro-expressions were still a hot topic for quite some time even while we had unlimited access to expressions; however, only the trained eye could detect them. If we are not that great at reading them when we have someone’s entire face available, how could we be more accurate with masks covering half of their face? Think about all the rich context we are missing now! Think about how pivotal it is for students and toddlers to connect with their educators and other school key-players. Without that rich facial context, especially for youth still developing such nonverbal skills, important information can be missed, and social situations can be misinterpreted, sometimes which could be disastrous. During the time of a pandemic, when everyone seems like a threat since Covid-19 can spread so quickly without being detected, masks can exponentially add to that fear and isolate us even more.
However, don’t be discouraged. As social beings, we will always value the ability to analyze people accurately and will constantly renew that skill, as it is vital to our well-being. In fact, it is more important than ever to pay attention to nonverbal cues. We may have focused heavily on the face for clues into the soul, but now can look at other telling signs, such as the entire body itself. A person could say they aren’t mad but have their arms crossed or their body turned away from you -- something is up! Also, eyes can reveal a lot - try to observe your face with a mask on in the mirror. Make different faces as you try to emulate an emotion and see how your eyebrows adapt to express that emotion. (That’s also why some people get Botox - they don’t want their faces to create permanent wrinkles from reacting to different situations and, instead, have stoic and tight reactions).
It also means that we have to be willing to ask questions that compromise our comfort and show we are going out of our way to truly understand someone. Sometimes that is much better than over reading into a situation and trying to process it ourselves. “Are you sure you’re not upset? You can tell me instead of hiding it because I want to understand.” These moments of checking in could show the other person that we are invested and do our part to make sure they are heard and responded to in the best way, especially when mixed emotions are being signaled.
Masks are a barrier to our typical mode of communication but having them on can push us to go out of our way to be nicer or get our point across. It means we have to be ready to discuss the spectrum of emotions people can experience without seeming overly aggressive. Until we can get used to communicating with an object that covers half of our face, we won’t have a good read on people, especially during times we may need it the most.