Saving Face - Kimberly Cihlar


5 min read

Deciphering Hidden Facial and Nonverbal Cues Beyond the Mask

With our faces hidden right now behind masks worn to protect the health of ourselves and those around us — preferably standing six feet apart from us— we need to tap into more nonverbal cues. Normally, the face helps us interpret the emotion behind words or actions. Now, the typical or “normal” facial cues we might have used to interpret what others are “saying” when we meet on the sidewalk, in a store, across a grocery belt or outdoor café table need to be replaced by a new language of interpretative intelligence.

A recent National Geographic article discusses how as the culture of mask wearing changes, so does the meaning of wearing a mask. Which also changes the meanings behind the mask. As faulty as humans can be, judgments and/or interpretations of and about other people’s character, feelings and attitudes, all occurring in much less than a nanosecond, can be skewed. According to NatGeo, different parts of the face signal different emotions: anger is usually expressed by motions with the mouth; disgust from wrinkling and furrowing eyebrows and nose.

Wearing masks for health and safety can create some social and cultural obstacles, too. “A change in just one feature can change the perception of the whole face,” says  Alexander Toderov, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Princeton University. 

“The eyes are the window to your soul.” —William Shakespeare

Maybe it’s time to focus on truly perceiving one another through the eyes, those portals to the soul that they are. Nothing says “I see you” more than holding a stranger’s gaze for any length of time. Let’s popularize eye gazing and fall deep into the iris-ringed spirit of another’s pupils. This tantric yogic exercise is said to boost intimacy, and it’s not necessarily in a sexual way. Remember artist Marina Abramovic’s MOMA retrospective, The Artist is Present? For 736 hours, Abramovic invited museum goers to come stare intently into her eyes for as long as they liked. The results were often devastatingly and brutally honest — read: people bursting into tears over the emotional intimacy that the eye-gazing bond created. Try it with the next person you come into social distancing contact with today: you’ll likely feel more mindfully present, more engaged and more connected on a deep spiritual level to that individual.

People tend to mirror each other’s facial signals, and mimicking is great as a social tool. Of course, that’s harder to do with only the eyes showing, since they’re a smaller area of visible signal-reading. Concentrate on projecting the hidden smile — or as the model Tyra Banks would call it, the “smize” — coming from the intention of smiling through the eyes.

Then there’s a whole other plane of cues to use and that’s body language. You might not think it, but our brains can compensate for lack of facial cues, especially as we practice “reading” other cues more.

“We might think we’re looking just at the face to read emotions, but in real life we have a lot of context from body and other things,” Toderov has added.  

Typically, body language is the expressions, movement and mannerisms of nonverbal communication that is instinctively instead of consciously acted out and upon. According to ScienceofPeople.com, there’s two sides to reading body language — 1) decoding, or one’s ability to read cues and interpret hidden emotions, information and personality from nonverbal signs and 2) encoding, which is how you send cues to others, your first impression and how you make others feel when they’re with you. Take context from body language. Everyone knows what arms crossed akimbo on one’s chest means. Other cues are just as important. Find a way to wave from far away that demonstrates extreme love and friendliness. Meet up close and personal smizing away as you bump elbows or “air hug.”

Stacy Torres, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley worries about concerns and cases of stereotyping, racial profiling and xenophobia that have emerged with the increased commonplaceness of masks. Humans tend to read character traits, such as trustworthiness or aggression, from faces — even though psychologists have shown that those inferences are often wrong, and in many cases will reinforce an observer’s stereotypes.

Masks may exacerbate that problem, according to articles recently published in The New York Times. Black men have been targeted recently for wearing masks in public, and many fear more racial profiling from police. Chinese-Americans have reported harassment and discrimination whether or not they’re wearing masks. We’ll need to work better at being better behind the mask.

Certain cultures seem to have had an easier time embracing the mask — Asians as a whole have adapted to masks for a couple of decades now, with the wearing of one signifying care and solidarity. Here in the States, unfortunately, many oppose wearing a mask, saying it’s an affront to their constitutional rights. Listen, if the fabric helps protect both the wearer and those around the wearer from existing or underlying health issues, COVID-19 or otherwise, a mask is pretty much a win-win, in our humble opinion.

In a Letter to the Editor at Tulsa World, Stan Schwartz, Infectious Disease Specialist in Tulsa, OK says, “I am an infectious diseases physician. Let’s be clear about masks. I wear a mask to protect you. You wear a mask to protect me. That’s how it works, and it’s simple. Without your mask, you are telling me and everyone around you that you don’t care about others. And that’s not how we get through a pandemic." 

There are drawbacks that come to mind, though, and one is that masks, as necessary as they might be, can hinder or become an added barrier for the deaf community. Learning how to read lips without lips being visible seems, well, impossible.  Branda Schertz, a senior lecturer of American Sign Language at Cornell University, told NBC News that “the best word to describe it would be a challenge.” Enter the partially transparent mask or mask made with a clear plastic area covering — or rather revealing — the lips.

Of course, deaf persons could write out communications. But as Ashlea Hayes, a board member for National Black Deaf Advocates, notes, that isn't ideal for people whose primary language is ASL. "It's never enough, because English is not our first language. Our first language is our visual communication, and that's how we get information. And that's how we understand the world around us. ... If you take that from us, we feel left out," Hayes told NBC News through an interpreter.” And that can lead to even greater feelings of isolation for that demographic.

Primary school director Ineke Zimmerman wears a partially transparent mask while using sign language to speak with a student in Brussels on May 4, 2020.Francois Lenoir / Reuters file

Perhaps there’s a way of telegraphing feelings underneath the mask from the mask itself. What are the possibilities of masks created with heat sensitive or mood ring-like materials and fabrics to create the ultimate beyond-the-face body language? Or taking this a step further, what of “Smart” textiles that could zap bacteria and viruses straight from the mask itself? Right now, these are not options, but mere research and development ideas in certain minds or labs. At least today you can choose the fabric color and print design, whimsical or serious, to portray your mood in the moment of mask donning. Of course, an easy solution is to get really good at sending out and interpreting hand and body language while in masked moments

Looking back over time, there have been a plethora of mask-wearing characters, from super heroes to criminals both, so the need to make mask-wearing a positive point is critical. There’s also the fact that ancient masks from the Black Death’s 17th century plague pandemic didn’t really do much, health-wise. Those bizarre beaked appendages may have been filled with herbs and sweet-smelling dried flowers to “ward off” the “bad air,” but they made more for a lasting iconic image of irony and fear.

So, yes, we do need to find better ways of communicating in order to “save face.” The greatest takeaway during this Coronavirus culture? Let your mask do your talking and telegraph that in your wearing your mask, you are presenting a face of healthy solidarity and cultural concern in step with all those sharing air around you. We’re all one, and we all breathe the same air. To riff off the yogini mantra, Namaske: the mask I wear to protect you honors the mask you wear to protect me. 

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