How do face Masks affect communication?


Due to COVID-19 pandemic, we are having team meetings and delivering psychological treatment virtually, which raised questions around effective communication. It has been working well so far with no negative feedback from clients. However, we are now having to wear a mask while delivering therapy on camera, which certainly limits communication even more.

When you are having a conversation and the only thing others can see is your eyes, how can you communicate effectively?

About 55% of human interaction is through non-verbal communication, mainly by facial expressions. Psychologist Rebecca Brewer at the Royal Holloway University of London argues that humans tend to process faces as a whole, rather than individual features. When we cannot see the whole face, such holistic processing is disrupted.

Although humans process it as a whole, different parts of the face express different emotions. Sadness, fear and anger are most often recognised by upper facial features, happiness and disgust are recognised by features in the lower face.

This means that covering the lower part of the face may conceal our expressions of positive feelings and possibly make us seem less friendly and approachable to others.

Indeed, a study showed that doctors wearing a face mask during consultations had a significant negative impact on the patient’s perceived empathy and reduced the positive effects of relational continuity. To reduce patient anxiety during COVID-19, doctors in the US pasted their smiley pictures on their protective suits. This had positive feedback from the patients.

Although covering the lower part of the face interferes with communication, we can still communicate a lot with the upper region of our faces. It is explained that eye gaze is one of the key indicators of mental states, discussed as the ‘Theory of Mind’. This theory helps to assess autism by using the theory of mind tests.

The thing is, we don’t make a lot of eye contact. Studies show that people look at each other only 30-60% of the time when talking. Perhaps wearing masks and relying on eye gaze may increase these percentages. To make sense of non-verbal cues without seeing the lower part of others’ faces, we will be pushed to look at each other’s’ eyes more. As a positive outcome of these difficult times, we may get better with non-verbal communication and eye contact.

On another note, recently, face masks are being used as a form of self-expression and an accessory. Some people choose to wear branded masks while others get standard masks from the local shops. Some people personalize their masks with different colours or smiley faces. This is a creative way to express self and appear more fashionable and approachable. It certainly is something positive to engage with during these difficult times.

No matter whether we are wearing a standard or a personalised mask, we are all forced to look into each other’s eyes more and listen to each other with more focused attention. Although wearing masks may get in the way of smiling to a person you are passing by and seem friendly, despite the social distancing, the unity of going through the pandemic together, and having to look at each other’s eyes more, will surely bring us closer.

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