University HealthCare Alliance

August 03, 2020

From Behind the Coronavirus Mask, an Unseen Smile Can Still Be Heard

How does that practice change basic communication? Does a face covering impair social interaction? Facial expression and emotion researcher Ursula Hess, deputy dean for international affairs at the faculty of life sciences at Humboldt University of Berlin, provides some answers in this interview with Scientific American’s German-language sister publication Spektrum der Wissenschaft.

If you wear a mask correctly, you cover your nose and mouth—half of your face becomes unrecognizable. How does that affect the perception of someone looking at you?
Whether the person with a mask makes a positive or negative impression depends mainly on what you think about mask wearing. If you’re someone who thinks that the current protective measures go too far, a person with a mask may appear gullible, if not downright foolish. On the other hand, if you are a devoted mask wearer, you will probably be more sympathetic to the other person.

It often helps to smile at others to ease social tensions. Recognizing a smile is much more difficult when the mouth is covered.
You’d think so. But I and my colleagues know from one of our studies, which will be published soon, that this is not the case: People’s ability to recognize emotional expressions does not get worse if their mouth and nose are covered. A real smile does not only move the mouth. Facial muscles—the zygomaticus major and the orbicularis oculi—also contract. The corners of the mouth turn up, and laugh lines appear around the eyes. In the study, observing the area around the eyes was usually enough to recognize someone else’s feelings. We examined this question with scarves, niqabs and masks. Confusion only occurred for certain emotions.

Which ones?
Fear and surprise. For both emotions, we usually open our eyes wide. We also rely on the mouth area in a big way. We express fear by widening the mouth. And if we’re surprised, we open it. If the mouth and nose are covered, we cannot see these differences.

Scientific American

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