Reading and interpreting facial expressions can be a challenging social skill by itself. But what happens when we add a face covering to the mix? Communication breakdowns! While face masks offer an important protective barrier in the attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, they also create new communication challenges. As face masks become the norm in the name of public health, we can minimize and/or repair communication breakdowns by using strategies to help us communicate with people who have covered faces.
The use of face masks alters communication in several ways: overall speech loudness, muffled speech, and obstructing facial expressions. Face masks block access to the facial features we rely on most for communication - the lips, teeth, and tongue. Obscuring these facial features blocks our ability to read facial expressions completely. Covering half of the face quite literally leaves us with only half the picture when we try to read someone's facial expressions. Even something as simple as a reassuring smile, that could once go a long way in improving communication and fostering connection between communication partners, is now eliminated from the clues we can use to determine how someone is thinking and feeling.
While many of us struggle with the new ‘face mask’ variable and its impacts on communication, there may be some individuals who find comfort in this development. Some individuals on the Autism spectrum may appreciate the increase in masks, as the effort it takes for them to read and interpret facial expressions can be quite intense. If everyone is wearing a mask, they may find social interactions that require reading and interpreting facial expressions less taxing, as the challenge of interpreting social cues becomes a level playing field for all participants.
Whether you struggled with interpreting subtle social cues prior to the increase in facial coverings, experience discomfort in not being able to rely on once easily identifiable facial cues, or if you find comfort in not having to constantly interpret facial expressions, there are strategies that we can all use to reduce communication breakdowns and increase social communication success:
Eye Contact: One communication strategy that we can still use even with masks on is eye contact. When we look at, follow, and read the eye gaze of the person we are talking to, we can gain insight into their thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Our eyes tell us a lot about what someone is thinking and feeling. When we look at the eyes, eyebrows, and gaze direction, we can make a guess about someone's thoughts and feelings. We can tell if someone is sad, happy, or concerned. We can make a good guess about what someone is thinking. For example, if they are looking away from us, towards something else, or averting their gaze for an extended period of time, we can make a guess that they may not want to continue the conversation. If eye contact is a challenge for you to maintain, try looking between someone’s eyes. Chances are they won’t be able to tell that you aren’t looking directly at them. And remember that in typical social conversations, people avert their gaze from time to time to avoid staring directly at their communication partner for extended periods of time.
Smile: While we can’t visually see a mouth through a mask, when we smile, our eyes tend to squint upwards and our temples contract. While we are used to seeing smiles by looking at peoples mouths, try looking at people’s eyes. Try it yourself with a loved one - if you have a mask on, ask someone if they can tell if you are smiling or not. And when you’re out in the community, try giving a simple smile. Because even if you can’t see a smile that’s obscured by a mask, the gesture of smiling at someone to reassure them and stay positive can go a long way in making someone’s day.
Body Language: While we can’t see people’s lips, teeth, and tongue through a mask, we can still interpret body language by relying on what clues we do have access to. Take a look at peoples’ arms - are they crossed, are they relaxed at their sides, are they tight to their bodies or loose and relaxed? Take a look at your own body language - see how the rest of your body is communicating to the world around you. In a time of stress like we are all experiencing, taking a look at subtle cues can help us pick up on the emotions of those around us as well as ourselves.
Verbal speech: Consider using clear speech strategies when you are wearing a facial covering and speaking to others. Clear speech means fully forming every word and sentence precisely and accurately, while avoiding exaggerating or shouting words. While using clear speech is important in all conversations, it is essential to remember when speaking with a mask on.
The use of facial coverings will likely be a new normal for many people as we work together to keep our communities safe. While reading facial expressions and making guesses about how someone is feeling can be incredibly challenging with a facial covering, we can gather as many clues as we can based on other aspects of social communication including eye contact, body language, verbal speech, and context. When we gather clues in the moment of social interactions, we can help prevent communication breakdowns before they occur.