The other day, I was thinking about the long-term implications of mask-wearing and social cues.
I will clarify that I am 100% pro-mask as a means of minimizing the spread of disease, of keeping myself and others as safe as possible in the midst of the current pandemic. My musings aren’t related to an anti-mask perspective. Masks = good.
I also know, however, that facial expressions play a key role in communication. We smile, we frown, we show surprise and anger, fear and joy, all the feelings with our faces. These actions emphasize and reinforce our words, voice tone, and body language.
As babies and young children, we learn how to interpret and use these expressions by watching and mimicking other people. As adults, we depend on these learned cues to evaluate and choose our actions when interacting with others.
Sometimes, we make a conscious decision about what we see; for example, we walk into a room of smiling people and conclude that we’re in friendly territory. Sometimes, our interpretation is more of a gut-level reaction; for example, a tight-lipped expression with the words, “I’m fine” warns us that things are not, in fact, fine.
So, if the lower half of the faces of great numbers of people aren’t visible for significant portions of time, what’s the eventual outcome?
It will be interesting to revisit this question after we have a vaccine, after masks have been unnecessary for a while. In the meantime, our challenge is to work around the situation, to come up with creative options to cope with any communication gaps.
I learned about one such option yesterday. FriendlyFaces.com is a website offering personalized masks for purchase. You take a selfie, upload it to the website, and then select the size and other details of your mask. When your mask arrives, you have a means of safely presenting your face, with your chosen expression, to the world.
There’s no requirement that the expression be a happy one, of course. “Resting bitch face” is certainly an option. I suspect, however, that most people who order a mask end up choosing a smiling selfie. Humans are social creatures, after all. It’s hard to resist a friendly face.