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Masking the Social Smile

Do face masks disrupt emotional expression?

Vera Davidova / Unsplash
Source: Vera Davidova / Unsplash

Everyone knows how to fake a smile. We learn when to show and hide our genuine emotions from early face-to-face exchanges. Parents instinctively want to shield their children from negative social experiences. So they reward emotional displays that will encourage and facilitate acceptance from others. Children learn to behave in specific ways to receive social approval. Part of this process is developing a social smile to hide unacceptable emotions.

The social smile is often activated automatically. We may not be fully aware of it. We might smile reflexively to put the brakes on showing too much negative emotion in public. We may maintain a calm, relaxed smile to prevent fear from upwelling and getting the best of us. We can also intentionally use the social smile to pepper our communication – like smiling, assuringly at someone who appears suspicious of us, or flashing a quick smile at an attractive stranger from across the room.

Even before the pandemic, our daily communications involved a complex mixture of authentic and fake smiles. Now that many of us are wearing face masks in public, how does it influence our communication of emotion?

Some people are finding it a relief. Those suffering from social anxiety may welcome wearing face masks precisely because they prefer to veil their emotional state from the outside world as much as possible. They suffer from the dread that others are noticing that they are blushing or anxious and making negative judgments about them. Others appreciate the freedom from the obligation to put others at ease with a warm, friendly smile. By wearing a face mask, you don’t have to smile if you don’t feel like it. Everyone can relax into their Resting Bitch Face.

However, without the social smile, it may be more challenging to manage others’ reactions to us. Social expectations around smiling differ by gender and ethnicity. Women’s faces are more often scrutinized, objectified, and judged on attractiveness and friendliness. Women are encouraged to smile more than men. Whether it be an image consultant or a catcaller, everyone seems free to advise women to smile more. By contrast, in racial profiling, African American men wearing a face mask may be perceived as dangerous. How do we react to seeing someone wearing a mask? Looking for information about another’s intention, you’ll probably feel a natural tendency to focus on the eyes.

Research finds that observers rely mostly on the eye and mouth regions to recognize emotions successfully. Different emotions are most easily detected in different areas of the face. When the whole face is visible, we focus on the eyes to spot sadness and fear, whereas disgust and happiness are more reliably detected by concentrating on the mouth area. These two parts of the face can work in isolation or complex coordination.

A study, published in Nature, found that genuine emotion is particularly difficult to conceal in the eyes. Still, micro-expressions in the eyes can be retrospectively concealed by mouth movements. When we encounter someone we dislike, we may momentarily display a reflexive expression of disgust, only to follow-up with a forced smile and greeting. The researchers wanted to know if these fake expressions were effective at hiding genuine emotions. They found that follow-up mouth movements can successfully conceal brief emotional changes in the eyes, or what are called micro-expressions thought to reflect real emotions.

Eyes are said to be the window to the soul and reveal essential information about one’s emotional state. Twenty years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed a test called the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ (or the Eyes Test, for short). The test consists of a series of photo snippets of people’s eyes only. The test revealed that people could rapidly interpret what another person thinks or feels from looking at their eyes alone. They did not need information from the mouth area to accurately read the person’s emotional state. It also showed that some of us are better at this than others. On average, women score better on this test than men. Accuracy on the test is related to self-reported cognitive empathy, accurate perception of emotion in full facial expressions, and breadth of vocabulary. You can take the test here.

Genuine smiles show in the eyes. Researchers of facial expression have consistently found distinct differences between obligatory social smiles and the authentic smile that naturally occurs when one is experiencing happiness or joy. The social smile is activated in the mouth muscles only and, therefore, easily covered up by a face mask. But a genuine smile, known as the Duchenne smile, named after the French anatomist who discovered it, involves both the mouth and the eyes. Interestingly, the facial muscle engaged by a genuine smile, called the orbicularis oculi, can’t be activated on command. You can see an authentic smile in the crinkles around the eyes.

The face mask only hides the fake smiles, not the real ones. Consider that by only seeing the eyes, it may be easier to get an accurate read of people’s genuine emotions.

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