What does it mean for us to have a year with smiles hiding behind masks?

Alison Bowen
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — When we see someone for the first time, we interpret many tiny things.

In fact, at least 42 things — that’s how many muscles make up the face.

But since the pandemic began and mask-wearing became crucial, we are often interacting with people whose face we can only half see. And this goes both ways, eliminating our ability to offer a friendly smile or a sympathetic grin.

As some people return to offices, many of them are experiencing conversations without the ability to communicate via full face.

A man and child make their way in downtown Chicago with masks on Sept. 3, 2021.

Peter Revenaugh has been studying how people interpret faces for years. He is a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Rush University Medical Center who works to treat disorders in the facial nerve. Many of his patients have facial paralysis or symmetry issues.

So what does it mean to go more than a year without seeing smiles as steadily as we did before?

“There has to be some misinterpretation on some level without having the full face to gauge the emotion,” Revenaugh said.

Facial communication is one of the first ways we interact. In a first impression, we make assumptions about a person, often based on things like symmetry. And we try to mimic what the other person’s face is expressing.

“And we’re not doing that right now. We’re not walking down the hall and someone smiles at you, you smile back at them,” he said. “But that’s a very big part of social communication.”

A 2020 study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that dividing the face into a visible half and invisible half might enhance the perception of negative emotions and diminish the perception of positive emotions. “Emotions such as surprise or disgust that utilize the mouth may be mistaken for strongly negative emotions such anger or sadness, and a smile may seem diminished or less genuine when the teeth and lips are occluded,” authors wrote.

“Masks make it incredibly challenging to display and perceive each other’s facial expressions, which are critical and necessary components of social interaction as they help individuals to modify their behavior in order to align with social communication and behavioral norms,” they wrote.

The muscles around the mouth that create a smile are key to construing how we feel and what we want to convey, Revenaugh said. He knows this firsthand.  As a surgeon who often wears masks around patients, he is careful to use other cues to be clear when, for example, he is making a joke.

“Some of my jokes fall flat,” he said, “because they’re not really sure. They can’t see me smiling.”

During the pandemic, he has watched as others experience the limitations of not utilizing  our full face to communicate, and how we are trying to cope. Responding to issues posed by masks hiding faces, some speech therapists, for example, wear see-through masks so clients can see their mouths move. Various consumer masks with see-through partitions so people can still see a mouth are on the market to address this.

Revenaugh has tried to use his eyes more to express meaning. “Our eyes crinkle at the corner when we’re doing a true smile, and most people around the world recognize that as a happy feeling,” he said.

Across languages, people recognize expressions in the same way, such as positive associations with smiling or negative associations with a furrowed brow.

Most of us take these tiny facial muscles for granted, he said.

His patients who have facial scars or paralysis find these issues psychologically challenging. They often feel misinterpreted or that people make snap judgments about them based on their facial features. For those who have symmetry issues, smiling might bring one side of the mouth up but not the other.

“The patients with facial paralysis or facial movement disorders, they consistently come in and say they are often characterized as being less approachable, less happy, less basically everything,” he said.

And generally, people who have a more furrowed brow after aging causes some expressions to be more ingrained reported being construed as less happy and less approachable.

Ways to adjust to inhibited facial communication include making more of an effort to construe positivity. People can employ a cadence to their speech to guide others, for example. Crinkling the corners of the eyes, a lighter tone of the voice, all can help.

And when Revenaugh’s with a patient, both masked, and he’s joking?

“I’ll simply say, ‘I’m joking,’” he said.