There’s a children’s song called “A Smile Goes a Long Way” that has shaped my adult personality more than I’d care to admit. It’s why I smile mindlessly at strangers on the street, first dates, and the checkout clerk at the grocery store. And when people, most often, smile right back at me (likely because research has shown that smiles are both positive and contagious), it—put simply—just feels good. But that’s how exchanges went during pre-pandemic times. Now we’re smiling with a mask on, making the expression (in addition to many others that convey emotion) ineffective. This means we have to find different ways to non-verbally communicate in order to stay connected.
“Facial expressions are really essential to interpersonal interactions because they communicate emotional context,” says board-certified psychiatric dermatologist Evan Reider, MD. “Think about what happens in a text-message exchange, when you’re not able to see someone’s face—you just have the words there, and there is so much potential for misinterpretation. The facial expression allows you to know if someone’s joking around, if they’re happy, or if they’re angry. It gives you a lot of information that we’re missing when we cover up our faces.”
Research shows that there are seven universal micro-expressions that each of us make with our faces to communicate emotions: happiness, disgust, anger, fear, sadness, contempt, and surprise. We all know—whether we realize it or not—that a smile indicates happiness, a wrinkled nose means we’ve seen (or smelled, or tasted) something disgusting, and a tense jawline shows that we’re pissed off. These tiny, often-involuntary movements tell the world how we’re feeling and are key to our own understanding of how the people around us are feeling, too. But with masks on? They’re rendered pretty much obsolete since no one can read the signals to engage in response.
“People use their mouths, noses, and jaws for different types of communication, which is really important and impactful in relating to other people,” says body-language expert Blanca Cobb. “But the mask covers roughly three quarters of your face… and that barrier shuts us down. We’ve stopped smiling [when we wear them] because it feels uncomfortable and unnatural.” Plus, when you’re smiling with a mask on, no one can see it anyway.
“When someone sees somebody they recognize and are happy, they’ll do what we call an ‘eyebrow flash,’ where their eyebrows lift for a couple of seconds, making their eyes look bigger.” — body-language expert Blanca Cobb
With visible smiles off the table for the time being, we now need to rely on the free, upper quarter of our faces to express ourselves. “Eyebrows are very expressive,” says Cobb. “When someone sees somebody they recognize and are happy, they’ll do what we call an ‘eyebrow flash,’ where their eyebrows lift for a couple of seconds, making their eyes look bigger.”
Your forehead can also pack a communicative punch. “When people are unsure, a lot of times they’ll furrow between the eyebrows,” says Cobb, explaining that this indicates confusion. And if you want to show someone you’re listening to what they have to say or want to continue a conversation, move your head slightly. “Tilt your head or nod,” says Cobb. “It can indicate agreement, but it can also encourage someone to keep talking or send a message of, ‘I’m listening, keep talking.’”
Aside from your face, you can also position your body in a way that will help to send an emotional message. “Emotional intelligence comes from reading the whole body,” says Cobb. “Even though our faces are constricted right now, your head is only one quarter of your whole body, so there’s a lot of other information [you can deliver].”
For example, our feet tend to indicate where we want to go, so if you want to talk to someone, point your feet toward them (and if you want to get out fast, start scooting away). Palms up and relaxed shoulders indicate warmth and welcoming, while crossed arms, hands clasped behind your back, or any sort of tension indicates unfriendliness—and these signals can be conveyed both while wearing a mask and social distancing. “Even though you’re six feet from someone, you can get a sense of whether they want to talk to you or not by looking at their body orientation,” says Cobb.
And, of course, there’s always the option to smile with your eyes—or in the words of Tyra Banks, to smize. “Everybody smiles somewhat differently, but there’s something uniquely endearing when someone smiles with their eyes,” says Dr. Reiter. “Some people are inherently more expressive than others and have more active muscles around their eyes, so if people are happy and they’re hyperdynamic in those areas, [they] are more likely to appear to be happy or angry or inquisitive or frightened.”
If this is all new to you, not to worry—you can practice in the mirror, and the skills will help you communicate in the long run. “Whether we have a pandemic or not, it’s people skills,” says Cobb. Which means that smizing is something you’ll be able to use long after mask season is (hopefully) over, and strangers on the street will be able to smize right back at you.