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Masking Your Mood: How Face Coverings Hide Feelings

Socially responsible strategies of pandemic social bonding.

Key points

  • Masked communication may cause us to misinterpret emotion.
  • To promote effective social interaction while masked, augment emotion with body language and gesture, along with verbal expression.
  • Transparent face shields and outdoor unmasking may facilitate socially responsible socializing.

When socializing with friends and family, face coverings mask emotion. Consider how much harder it is to read and interpret the feelings of masked strangers, with whom we have no baseline or context within which to interpret their words. Without the visual cues that drive approach behavior and facilitate verbal understanding, we are missing out on the chance to form new relationships.

Another reason we might miss out on making new social contacts stems from the observation that masked communication may cause us to misinterpret emotion.

 Christo Anestev/Pixabay
Source: Christo Anestev/Pixabay

Masking and misinterpreting emotion

Claus-Christian Carbon (2020) explored how wearing a face mask impacts the ability to read emotion.[i] He recognizes that our faces transmit personal identity as well as socially relevant information, such as age and gender, as well as attractiveness and trustworthiness. He notes that the masks worn to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which cover the mouth and the nose, obscure about 60-70 percent of the area relevant for reading emotional expression, hiding an area of our faces that is critical for effectively communicating emotion nonverbally.

Carbon tested the impact of wearing masks on reading expressions on 12 different faces displaying six expressions, angry, fearful, disgusted, happy, sad, and neutral, while either showing the entire face or wearing a mask. He found that confidence in assessing facial emotions, as well as accuracy in doing so, was decreased when the subject to be assessed was wearing a mask.

Carbon found that masks confused emotional reading in several areas, causing assessors to misinterpret disgust for anger, which may be an important mistake when someone who feels aversion may be viewed as potentially aggressive, and causing assessors to misinterpret happy, sad, and angry faces as neutral.

In order to promote effective social interaction while masked, Carbon suggests augmenting emotion with body language and gesture, along with verbal communication. He notes that we have a variety of different ways in which we can interpret the mental and emotional state of other people, including body language, posture, head orientation, voice, and social context.

Masking and therapeutic relationships

Katharina Hüfner et al. (2020), discussing the issue of masking in a hospital setting, note that it is already difficult to interact and discuss cases with colleagues while everyone is masked, and masking is particularly problematic when attempting to treat patients who have psychiatric disorders.[ii] Sharing their personal experience, they explain that when interacting with masked staff, schizophrenic patients might be bewildered, patients who suffer from dementia may become agitated, and patients with a somatoform disorder may become anxious.

From their perspective, Hüfner et al. describe engaging in a daily test of “Reading the mind in the eyes.” That is what we do every day as well because the eyes are all we can see when someone is wearing a mask. Not surprisingly, many people have explored creative alternative face-covering options in search of a better way to maintain both health and humanity.

Promoting health by unmasking emotions

In an effort to reduce misunderstanding and misinterpretation, people who want to maintain both physical and social health have to be proactive and creative, understanding the critical importance of authentic human contact. One option is using transparent shields when appropriate. Allowing the user to both breathe and bond socially, shields showcase smiling faces and facilitate speech comprehension. Other people choose to remain unmasked outdoors as much as possible, taking advantage of the opportunity to greet others authentically and safely.

One important reason people want to interact literally face-to-face to the extent possible is to counteract the socially isolating impact of the pandemic. With so many people emotionally impacted by lockdowns, stemming from factors including job loss, disruption of peer relationships, or the loss of loved ones, unmasked human contact is both comforting and calming.

So while social restrictions still mandate precautionary measures, many people find it socially therapeutic to showcase as much humanity as possible. Socially responsible engagement promotes health, happiness, and quality of life.

References

[i] Carbon, Claus-Christian. 2020. “Wearing Face Masks Strongly Confuses Counterparts in Reading Emotions.” Frontiers in Psychology 11 (September). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.566886.

[ii] Hüfner, Katharina, Alex Hofer, and Barbara Sperner-Unterweger. 2020. “On the Difficulties of Building Therapeutic Relationships When Wearing Face Masks.” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 138 (November). doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2020.110226.

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