By Daniel Farber Huang
July 7, 2020
Coronavirus is forcing individuals and communities around the world to modify many aspects of our daily human interaction. New cultural norms such as social distancing and physical distancing are forcing us to adjust how we connect with one another. Many of our means of communication have changed dramatically as well, from endless Zoom meetings and videocalls to TikToks galore.
Spoken communication between people is often a combination of verbal (what we say) and visual (how we say it). Face-to-face communication today is further complicated thanks to the widespread (and necessary) use of face masks. Mask wearing by the general public is vitally important to reducing the risks and spread of COVID-19 both for the wearer and the rest of society.
A mask covering half a person’s face not only filters germs, however, it also blocks valuable expressions, microexpressions and other non-verbal cues from being communicated.
“Learning to read microexpressions and nonverbal behaviors in general can be very valuable for anyone whose job it is to understand other people’s true feelings, their thoughts, their motivations, their personalities or their intention,” David Matsumoto, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, said in a February 2016 American Psychological Association “Speaking of Psychology” podcast interview.
Matsumoso said understanding microexpressions can be valuable “for anybody whose job it is to be able to get that kind of additional insight – what I call data superiority – for the individual who’s observing others.”
Law enforcement, healthcare professionals, sales people, and lawyers are just a few of the professions where picking up on nonverbal information is valuable. “Anybody whose job it is to gain some additional insight about the person that you’re talking with so that you can leverage that information for a particular outcome,” Matsumoto said.
On a day-to-day basis, exchanging pleasantries at the checkout counter, asking for a coffee, even flirting while wearing a mask forces a dramatically different dynamic than was the case in our pre-COVID world.
In the excellent negotiating book, “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It” former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss recommends that a negotiator do whatever possible to get face time with his or her counterpart.
“Ten minutes of face time often reveals more than days of research,” Voss said, pre-COVID.
What we say versus what we truly mean can differ wildly. UCLA professor emeritus Albert Mehrabian determined that verbal and nonverbal messaging are often inconsistent when communicating feelings or attitudes. In his research Mehrabian concluded that, when specifically conveying feelings or attitudes, only 7 percent of a message is based on the words, 38 percent comes from tone of voice, and 55 percent is communicated by the speaker’s body language and face.
In other words, nonverbal communication regarding feelings or attitudes is significantly more important than the words being said. Incongruence between the words and nonverbal signs may show when your counterpart is uncomfortable, even possibly untruthful.
[Mehrabian’s work has often been oversimplified, incorrectly implying that 55 percent of all communication, about anything, is nonverbal. His findings are specifically about feelings and attitudes. He even had to put a disclaimer on his website about it.]
Before talking about how we can communicate more effectively when hidden behind a face mask, let’s first talk about what communication assets we actually lose when the lower half of our face is covered.
First of all, we lose our smile, and the ability to know when the other person is smiling back at us. According to Psychology Today,”Smiling makes you seem courteous, likable, and competent … If you look sad or anxious, perhaps others wonder if you know what you are doing. So perhaps a simple smile might be a shortcut to business success.”
Former FBI agent Joe Navarro in his highly insightful book “What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People” said many of our physical reactions are controlled by our limbic system — the part of our brain that is responsible for our fight, flight or freeze reaction to danger that keeps us alive — and therefore brutally honest. It’s hard to fake what the limbic system controls. Think about how your body jerks or reacts to a sudden loud noise, that’s your innate survival mode at work. A person’s body often reacts honestly to a situation, even if the words that person is speaking may not be true and accurate. So it’s valuable to pay attention to not just what is being said, but how the message is being delivered.
According to Navarro, our mouths provide a number of relatively reliable and noteworthy indicators (or “tells”) that help us deal with each other more effectively. Like our eyes, our mouths can be manipulated by our brains to send false signals when we want to. For instance, Navarro said it’s well-known by researchers that we have both a fake smile and a real smile.
The fake smile is used as a social nicety toward people who are not close to us. Our real smile is for people and events that we truly care about. Our smiles are not only mental, they’re physical too.
Navarro said a real smile requires the action of two different muscles: the zygomaticus major, which stretches from the corner of the mouth to the cheekbone, and the orbicularis oculi, which surrounds the eye. When these muscles work together, they draw the corners of your mouth up toward the eyes, creating the crow’s feet of an honest, genuine smile.
With a fake, generic smile (say “Cheese!”), the corners of the lips stretch sideways thanks to a muscle called the risorius. This muscle pulls the smile sideways but cannot lift upwards like a true smile. [How many of you just smiled Cheese while reading this? Well done!]
According to Navarro, even babies several weeks old will give a true smile to their mothers but offer the generic smile to other people.
Other important mouth cues that are indicative (but not ironclad given that we’re talking about human nature) include disappearing lips indicating stress; compressed lips indicating the owner is experiencing negative stimulus; and pursed lips indicating disagreement with what is being heard.
Furthermore, mouth and nose combinations such as sneers, or nose flinching or nose crinkling transmit important feelings and responses.
And then there are tongue movements such as the pacifying behavior of licking our own lips to soothe and calm us down, or tongue “jutting” (a quick out and in) which is common when a person is “caught doing something they shouldn’t, they screw up, or they are getting away with something,” Navarro said.
We lose all those nonverbal hints, and more, when our faces are covered up. Genuine communication and its important byproducts, such as building trust and empathy with a counterpart, become challenging too.