Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 03, 2020

What WAS that Masked Man Saying? How Wearing a Mask May Influence Our Interactions with Other People

by Sara D. Hodges
Young man and woman with face masks chat in office

The CDC recommends that all Americans wear masks when in public to slow the spread of COVID-19.  Although the health benefits of masks seem clear, the social effects of covering much of one’s face are less obvious.

After all the disruption and pain this pandemic has already caused, masks are yet another hassle—often ill-fitting and uncomfortable, incompatible with glasses and earrings, and even now, in short supply. Medical masks are associated with sickness and hospitals and thus serve as a constant reminder that the virus is still amongst us. People feel silly wearing masks—and, more seriously, members of some demographic groups worry about associations between mask-wearing and criminal behavior. Beyond all these negative associations, masks present a serious challenge when trying to communicate our feelings to other people via facial expressions such as smiling and frowning. However, humans are flexible and creative—and may develop novel behaviors as they adapt to masks.

Paradoxically, in the short term, wearing masks may actually enhance communication in some contexts. Research conducted in pre-masked times showed that people often believe that they are being clearer with their facial expressions than they actually are.  So, if the novelty and hassle of wearing a mask reminds people that their facial expressions are obscured, then perhaps wearing a mask will lead them to compensate by exerting more effort to make their emotions and intentions clearer. Who knows? Perhaps we will also make a greater effort to discern other people’s intended emotions, knowing that their mask hinders our ability to infer what they’re feeling.

We also might attend more to our emotional messages by being explicitly verbal, for example by telling people, "This makes me so happy" rather than relying on our smiles to convey our happiness, or by asking people directly, "Is that alright?," rather than making assumptions from an ambiguous facial expression.

We may also try to communicate more simply and to repeat ourselves more, the way we do with children, foreigners, and people who appear to have limited cognitive abilities.  Or, we may resort to corporal booster systems, using an exaggerated wave of the hand to acknowledge someone's presence or putting both our thumbs up to indicate that it's fine for someone to roll their grocery cart in front of ours on their way to establishing social distance. The highly expressive "motionese"—the broad hand motions and exaggerated movements we usually reserve for communicating with babies and toddlers—may be pulled out for interactions between masked adult strangers.

And all this is happening at the same time that many of us are spending more time in Zoom meetings, where we have ample opportunity to observe just how expressive and clear—or more likely, inexpressive and unclear—our usual facial expressions are. We may learn more about our own habitual levels of expressiveness and discover that we have a "resting bitch face" (or, in my case, given my neurotic nature, a “resting worry face”). Maybe people will become better calibrated in knowing when they have and have not communicated clearly.

What will be interesting to see is what happens if wearing masks becomes necessary over a long period of time, and we cease being keenly aware of them and their masking properties. Will using new ways to be explicitly expressive when masked become the new norm? Will we find ourselves developing new "speech registers"—styles of language specific to particular settings—for communicating with and without masks, much in the same way that some of us currently reflect less of our regional accents when speaking before a professional group than we do with our family?

One can almost imagine our significant other reminding us, "I get it, honey—you don't have be so emotional. Remember, you took your mask off!" Or, as we acclimate to wearing masks, will we revert to being just as egocentric as ever, assuming that other people can "read" our ambiguous facial expressions—but now with the added difficulty of doing so without seeing the lower half of our faces?

History suggests that if ambiguous and misinterpreted communication becomes problematic with masks, we'll adapt. After all, when emails and texts took over what had previously been spoken telephone calls, tone of voice and other paralinguistic cues could no longer be used to convey emotion—but then, ta-da!: emoji emerged.  Let’s hope humans will find an equally adorable—and pragmatic—fix for communicating emotions while wearing masks.

For Further Reading

Barr, C. L., & Kleck, R. E. (1995). Self-other perception of the intensity of facial expressions of emotion: Do we know what we show? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(4), 608–618.

Brand, R. J., Baldwin, D. A., & Ashburn, L. A. (2002). Evidence for 'motionese': Modifications in mothers' infant-directed action. Developmental Science, 5(1), 72–83.
DePaulo, B. M., & Coleman, L. M. (1986). Talking to children, foreigners, and retarded adults. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(5), 945–959.

Sara Hodges studies how accurately people understand each other and is a professor of social psychology at the University of Oregon.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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