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Read my eyes: Communication in the face-mask era

Gaby Reucher ss
May 22, 2020

Is that a smile, a grimace or a mocking grin? Thanks to the coronavirus, many parts of the worlds are beginning to get used to wearing a protective face mask. Suddenly, we're having to use our eyes more to communicate.

A woman wears a colorful mask with makeup around her eyes
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

"Here's looking at you, kid": What a legendary sentence! In the 1942 film classic Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart utters these unforgettable words as he touches Ingrid Bergman's face and stares into her eyes. She responds with glistening tears and a tender and longing gaze. That's Hollywood for you.

But in real life, it's a different story. In Western Europe, making direct eye contact during day-to-day activities, especially with strangers, is rather uncommon. It's considered unpleasant, impolite even, to look someone you don't know squarely in the eye. Staring on your phone screen in public transport and similar situations has long become the go-to solution to avoid unwanted contact.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman look into one another's eyes in the 1942 classic 'Casablanca'
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looked into one another's eyes in the 1942 classic 'Casablanca'Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

However, this might be changing. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing people all over the world to protect themselves in public places with face masks that tightly and entirely cover their mouths and noses. This forces people to look into each other's eye more than they may be used to, in order to fully understand the intent what is being said.

'Windows to the soul'

It is said that eyes are the windows to the soul — and there may be some truth to that. Scientists have discovered that certain facial expressions communicate the same emotions, regardless of the culture from which a person comes. These emotions include anger, fear, grief, joy, surprise and disgust.

With these emotions, the expressiveness of a person's eyes plays an imporant role. For instance, a genuine smile is communicated through laugh lines that appear in the corners of the eyes.

Professional career coaches often advise their clients to always maintain eye contact during their conversations, as this not only conveys self-confidence but also shows interest in the person with whom they're talking. A friendly smile often serves as the best conversation opener.

A woman in a face mask smiles
A smile also largely expressed in one's eyesImage: AFP/M. Antonov

Smile when your heart is breaking

But this is exactly where the problem with face masks begins.

Experts estimate that 55-80 % of our communication is non-verbal. But a friendly smile can easily be lost at a shop counter while wearing protective masks.

"Facial expressions are one of the most important non-verbal channels for communication," said Christian Wallraven, a cognitive neuroscience researcher, in an interview with DPA news agency.

Wallraven's research at Korea University in Seoul focuses on facial expressions. "The greatest source of non-verbal information comes from our mouths," he said, explaining that facial expressions, especially in the lower part of the face, reveal nuances in the spoken word.

Women in China walk down the street wearing face masks
In China wearing face masks is a practice that had been common long before coronavirus arrivedImage: Imago Images/UPI Photo/S. Shaver

But face masks hide much of these facial expressions. This makes it difficult to put things that are being said into the right context, which may lead to uncertainty, Wallraven said. "Is that person smiling or grinning sarcastically? You just can't tell."

To make matters worse, people in Western Europe appear to also have lost the skill of reading other people's feelings through their facial expressions. That's what Dirk Eilert, an emotional intelligence coach and author, means when he speaks of "facial-expression resonance."

"Studies have shown that people's ability to recognize emotions is on average 62.7%. This means that we misinterpret almost one out of two facial expressions or even overlook them," Eilert explains in an introductory video to his courses. His goal is to motivate people to regain their ability to read facial expressions.

Various European politicians stand next to each other and make gestures and faces
Politicians' facial expressions can sometimes reveal emotions they may rather not showImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Sohn

Different global communication practices

However, it's not just Western Europe where eye contact is often avoided; Dropping one's gaze is considered polite practice in other areas of the world, too.

In parts of central Asia, such as Pakistan, looking at the ground while communicating is considered to be a sign of respect towards elders. There is also a gender element, as women are often taught that they shouldn't show facial expressions or use body language in public. The same kind of behavior could easily be interpreted as a lack of interest in Europe and other parts of the globe.

At the same time, some cultures place even more value on non-verbal communication cues. This is the case in large parts of Latin America and perhaps could mean that masks there are seen in a more negative light and as more of an obstacle.

People around the world are already living under duress due to social distancing measures, and the communication challenges that wearing a face mask raises can add to heightened stress levels.

In times like these it might be best to recall Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and try to copy their acting skills. Bogart says so little with those five words, but he says so much through his eyes.

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