Beyond the Mask: Re-Acquaintancing with the Whole Human Face

With the ongoing health crisis improving, we expect to stop wearing face masks in the future.  For many adults and children, seeing people’s faces covered with masks was overwhelming in the beginning. Face masks have made verbal communication more challenging, as people were not used to talking and listening to others speak through a face covering. Many kids were afraid of adults with covered faces, seeing them as threatening or unfriendly. 

The societal impacts of the past year’s crisis on children, their families, and communities are yet to be determined. Although most people have accustomed to wearing face masks in public, many will be relieved to take them off finally. 

After a long period of seeing only eyes, we got used to understanding facial impressions just from eye contact. How has that experience affected our communications skills?

The Importance of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication involves the act of communicating our thoughts and feelings through body posture, physical gestures, and facial expressions. As such, nonverbal communication plays a significant part in our day-to-day social interactions. We develop the ability to read facial expressions from the earliest age. This form of communication can help us understand the emotional state of other people and establish better relationships.

Research has proven that a majority of our everyday communication is nonverbal. Facial expression is a significant aspect of non-verbal communication, as seeing emotional expressions on people’s faces engages various cognitive processes. 

For example, seeing a human face expressing fear provokes increased activity in the amygdala and the same response in the observer, studies show.

Wearing face masks has prevented us from seeing the mouth of the people we are talking to. Since the mouth can convey much more than just a smile, the face-covering can prevent us from sending and receiving important messages about our true feelings.

For example, an open mouth can signal surprise or fear while a dropped jaw often signals surprise; a person’s mouth’s corners that are drawn down are expressing sadness, etc. Also, you can tell a person is anxious if they are biting their lip or hiding something if they are covering the mouth. These (and many other) nonverbal signals are hard to read while the face mask is on. 

Difficulties for Kids with Special Needs

Research suggests that up to two-thirds of children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have trouble recognizing other people’s faces. Many of them also have difficulties understanding emotional expressions. Seeing covered faces for kids with ASD can be overwhelming and further impair their ability to engage in social interactions.

Facial expression plays a significant role in easing interpersonal communication. Therefore, wearing face masks impedes the ability to understand people’s expressions. 

Research shows that the middle and lower face plays a vital role in emotional recognition in children – kids recognize fear, anger, and surprise based on information from the lower face, e.g., mouth.

By removing face masks, our nonverbal communication will improve, helping us better understand other people’s emotions, offer empathy, and connect more effectively.