4 Ways to Communicate When You Can't See Someone's Face

These 4 tips will help you improve your communication in the age of face masks.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

To be able to read people’s emotions, you generally need to be able to see their entire face. Are they laughing, frowning, bored, tired, or afraid? Their mouths will often give away their state of mind. However, in a time when nearly everyone is wearing some type of lower facial covering, you’re left with the need to determine how the people around you are feeling with very limited cues.

Perhaps you’re walking through the aisles at your local grocery store, rushing to grab some necessary supplies before they disappear from the shelves for the rest of the day. By mistake, you get within the 6-feet recommended sphere for social distancing as you pass another equally face masked and desperate individual. In ordinary circumstances, you might smile as you apologize, but with that mask on, all you can do is utter a muffled “I’m so sorry,” which of course, your fellow shopper can't hear. Equally frustrating, you can't tell whether your attempt at reconciliation even worked.

Everyone is operating under similarly strange scenarios as they venture outside their homes to complete their necessary tasks with their faces covered in various forms of protection. Front-line health care workers spend their entire time with patients and fellow staff members under similar constraints. At a time when people need to reassure themselves as much as possible by communicating and receiving empathy, the channel of communication provided by the face is now severely limited.

According to Yulia Roitblat and colleagues of the Belkind School for Special Education in Rishon-LeZion, Israel (2020), the “emotional gaze in a still-face setting” can still have power (p. 2). In the first of two studies by the same authors (2019), the majority (79%) of an international sample of participants (100 adolescents aged 14-18) viewers (10 judges ages 27 to 61 years) were able to  accurately recognize the emotions of happy, sad, and angry from photos of their eyes alone. Not everyone was equally good at judging emotions, though, as shown by the fact that 18% of judges made mistakes on every single emotion-judging trial.

Still, given that the majority of people and judgments were accurate in reading emotions from the still photos of the eyes, the findings of this first study suggested that, in the words of the authors, “the direct gaze, when we speak of emotions, is as informative as visible and well-detectable muscular facial expressions and eye movements such as gaze aversion” (pp. 5-6). However, how much better can emotion-reading become when the nose and mouth are added to the task?

In the second Roitblat et al. study (2020), the authors therefore contrasted the ability of judges to recognize emotions from the eyes, the middle region, and then the full photo of faces intended to communicate the three emotions of angry, happy, and sad. Two separate panels of 400 individuals each (ages 16-25) rated the emotions represented in the photos of full or partial facial expressions. In addition to the original three emotion ratings, the second panel was also asked to add surprised and frightened to the choices.

As it turned out, once again it seemed that “the eyes have it.” When given three choices (after correcting for chance), judges rated the three sets of photos with approximately equal accuracy; when the number of choices was expanded to five, the accuracy rate for eyes only was about 50%  compared to about two-thirds with middle and full facial regions.

However, after correcting further for the fact that the same judges provided ratings within each panel of all facial stimuli, the differences among the three conditions leveled off, and the judging of emotions from eye gaze alone remained about as good as that from the entire face.

It seems, then, that although the eyes have the power to communicate emotions without any other facial cues present, some people are better at the task than others. Indeed, if you’re like one of those who failed utterly at the task of judging emotions from the eyes alone, the findings also suggest some hope for remediation in what the authors called “facial expression training." What's more, in real life, you've got additional cues that you can add to the ones presented by the eyes. 

These four steps will help you take advantage of the power of the eyes and the other nonverbal channels you have at your disposal when your face, and that of those around you, are partially hidden:

1.  Use the automatic information contained in the eyes. Because the automatic features of someone’s gaze by definition can’t be controlled, they can be the most reliable of guides to use even if the person isn’t wearing a facial cover-up. For yourself, although you can’t control the width of your pupils or even the trickling down of a tear, the findings suggest that you dig into your inner feelings and allow your autonomic nervous system to take over control of the messages that your eyes signal.

2. Add eyebrows to the equation. Although Roitblat et al. didn’t discuss this, the photos they provided of eyes used in their studies changed not only in width of the eye opening (widest in angry and happy) but also the positioning of the eyebrows. When angry, your eyebrows form a “V” but when you’re happy, they bend upward toward the top of your head like an upside down “U.” Sad eyebrows form an upside down “V.” Your mouth, in other words, may be hidden by a face mask, but your eyebrows can still become responsive to your emotions and you can use this information in reading other people’s feelings.

3. Remember the power of body language. You’ve got more than your eyes available when you’re out and about interacting with others in the real world. Use yours to accentuate your emotions, all the way from your hands to your posture. Research on communication makes it clear that these “paralinguistic” elements of speech are important guides to gauging the feelings, sincerity, and intent of other people. Reading these cues in others will, similarly, help you figure out how they’re feeling.

4. Give yourself a break if you get it wrong, and similarly, excuse others for their missteps. Everyone is trying to renegotiate their social world and it will take a while for all of this to settle down. As in ordinary face-to-face (without a mask) communication, it’s important to realize that you, or others, may flub an interaction. Getting angry will only make things worse.

To sum up, the world of emotional communication is certainly shifting as more and more people put their lower faces under wraps. If you put these simple steps into practice, even in those chance interactions with strangers, your emotional life can continue to thrive.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Volurol/Shutterstock

References

Roitblat, Y., Cohensedgh, S., Frig-Levinson, E., Suman, E., & Shterenshis, M. (2019). Emotional expressions with minimal facial muscle actions Report 1: Cues and targets. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. http: 10.1007/s12144-019-0151-5

Roitblat, Y., Cohensedgh, S., Frig-Levinson, E., Cohen, M., Dadbin, K., Shohed, C., Shvartsman, D., & Shterenshis, M. (2020). Emotional expressions with minimal facial muscle actions Report 2: Recognition of emotions. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. doi: 10.1007/s12144-020-00691-7