To protect our collective health, face masks are now an essential wardrobe accessory, and many workplaces have issued stringent safety measures that include wearing masks. But communicating in a masked world will require learning new skills.
With the covering of the nose and mouth, faces become more difficult to recognize and decipher. Those nuanced movements around the mouth, which convey a richness of emotional data, are hidden from view, creating a communication barrier that can pose ongoing challenges.
The human face is complicated. Its muscles are capable of conveying 21 categories of emotion, and it has been described as “one of the richest and most powerful tools in social communication.” The ability to read people’s expressions is fundamental to managing interpersonal interactions, conducting business negotiations and navigating office politics.
Now, partially hidden faces will obscure those features that we rely on to convey mood and emotion. Employees will need help from the workplace to ensure that everyone is communicating clearly. Organizations can help employees become more aware of and compensate for these communication deficits through training and other opportunities that enable them to engage on this issue. With that goal in mind, here are three suggestions for strengthening workplace communications in a masked world.
1. Focus on the Visual Cues in the Upper Half of the Face
Experts in the science of non-verbal communication recommend several ways to become more astute at observing how people are demonstrating their feelings. For example, Dr. David Matsumoto says that reading facial expressions behind the mask requires focusing on the upper face for certain telltale signs. He notes that disgust is visible in the area at the top of the nose, fear in the lifting of the eyelids, surprise in the brow and eye movements, and sadness or distress in the inner corners of the brows. Focusing attention on these micro-expressions can reveal emotions even when the mask hides the mouth.
2. Become More Attuned to the Mechanisms of a Smile
Humans learn in infancy how to manipulate their environment through a grin. Over time, that understanding evolves into learning to read smiles for their more nuanced meaning.
Psychologists have long studied the smile as an emotional cue that conveys amusement, embarrassment, nervousness or courtesy. In fact, for more than 150 years, scientists have identified the Duchenne smile as a grin that engages the eyes and mouth in coordinated movements that reveal genuine joy. The social smile, however, does not engage the eyes. Rather, it is a smile that lacks fundamental happiness or pleasure and can even hide negative emotions, including deception.
As masks obscure the smile’s simple way of communicating happiness or pleasantries, it may be helpful to engage more in head-nodding, waving and verbal greetings to signal warmth and convey friendliness. Fortunately, the universal power of laughter can give voice to a grin and put others at ease. Studies demonstrate that the mere sound of a laugh is contagious, so its service during this pandemic may be particularly useful — and welcome.
Employees may be interested in opportunities to talk about their own experiences communicating pleasantries or understanding someone else’s emotional needs while masked.
3. Avoid Relying on First Impressions
Research shows people have only about one-tenth of a second to make a first impression. In that time — and in the seconds that follow — the tendency is to categorize people in ways that allow unconscious biases to dominate the brain’s impulses, impacting hiring, workplace opportunities, and the likelihood of promotion and even termination.
In a masked world, that tendency to jump to conclusions about others can be exacerbated, because it is harder to interpret warmth and friendliness when the face is obscured. To compensate, we should consciously allow more time and occasions for others to demonstrate their abilities before rendering a judgment. Perhaps building this habit will be a silver lining in the mask.
In the classic Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler,” the card player’s first words describe how he made a life out of reading people’s faces. For many, success has depended on that ace — the ability to detect subtle facial movements that guide our judgments about others. For now, that success will require learning to read what is revealed around the mask.