How Masks Affect Our Nonverbal Behavior

6 ways body language changes because of masks.

Posted Mar 02, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to mandatory wearing of masks in public in some places, and the voluntary wearing of masks in others. As a result, we regularly encounter people wearing masks that cover their nose and mouth. We know that our faces are a critical means of nonverbal communication. What does covering half of our faces do to our ability to communicate?

1. Mask Stereotypes. In nonverbal communication, context matters. Our expectations, experiences, and biases all play a part in how we evaluate other people and in how we interpret the subtle body language messages they are communicating. Think of this, if you entered a bank or convenience store pre-Covid, and you saw someone wearing a mask, you might think that the place was getting robbed.

So, what does the wearing of a mask convey, nonverbally, in the Covid era? If you are a firm believer that masks are protective, you might have positive inclinations toward another mask wearer. If, however, you are an anti-masker, you have different biases toward that masked individual. Thus, context itself can affect both person perception and our interactions going forward.

2. Social Distancing. Covid masks send an unspoken message of “keep your distance.” So, masked persons typically have larger areas of “personal space” and this can inhibit good nonverbal communication. This distance makes it more difficult to see body language cues, particularly of the uncovered portion of the face.

3. The Whole (Face) Matters. When communicating nonverbally, we get a holistic impression from putting different cues together. For example, we look at a person’s slumped posture, slow gait, and quiet voice to get an impression of sadness. The same thing goes for the face. In order to “decode” facial expressions, we look at a combination of cues. But masking leaves us with only the upper half of the face, and it makes it difficult to read another’s emotions. It also makes recognition difficult (“Is that so-and-so?” “Is the person friendly?” “Should I approach and initiate conversation?”).

4. The All-Important Smile. Clearly, we are engaging in less social interaction in public places in the Covid era for fear of infection, but body language – or more accurately the loss of nonverbal cues – may be further inhibiting our social selves. Smiling – a key element of expressing positive emotions – disappears with masking. It is very hard to read others’ emotions without seeing their mouths and determining if they are in a pleasant state, and thus approachable, or in an unpleasant state, communicating “stay away.”

5. Muffled Voice Tone. The mask also reduces the volume of speech as well as distorting the sound (“Did she just say “hi” to me, or merely grunt?”). It may also be difficult to pick up on the emotional cues of voice tone because of the restriction of the mask.

6. The Eyes Have It. So, the mask hides (masks!) many nonverbal cues, so what are we left with? Our eyes are quite expressive and a good channel for communication. Of course, it is difficult to interpret nonverbal cues from the eyes alone, without seeing the rest of the face, but careful attention to the eyes may be one of the best ways to communicate nonverbally when encountering others in public places.

Read more about nonverbal communication here and here.

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