Face masks on: A society without smiles

Covered: Covid face masks around the world (including one where the smile is an image).

Do masks increase alienation? As the UK follows much of the world by having mandatory face coverings on public transport, some fear it may harm our ability to form connections with others.

Today, more than 50 countries mandate wearing masks in public. Many citizens in countries without strict regulations wear them anyway to protect themselves and others from catching the coronavirus.

And in many countries, particularly in Asia, wearing masks – to guard against pollution, for example – was already the norm.

This morning, the UK joins them. Face coverings are now mandatory on public transport and inside hospitals – they are also strongly advised inside all closed spaces, such as shops.

In countries newer to the practice, some people are struggling with having something covering our faces. “It’s hard to breathe with a mask on” and “I can’t have a proper conversation because my words sound muffled” are two common complaints.

Charities have also warned that members of the deaf community and others with hearing problems may struggle if face mask wearing becomes common and widespread.

But millions of women around the world wear face veils every day, with few apparent problems with hindered communication. Obviously, a face mask differs significantly from a niqab or burka. A face mask is worn for medical reasons; a niqab or burka, for a cultural or religious one. The two have very different meanings and motivations for the wearer.

Still, they all obscure parts of our face. Do masks really impede our interactions with others as much as we may think?

Since our earliest days, human beings have been incredibly attuned to reading the facial expressions of others. This ability likely conferred upon us an evolutionary advantage, Charles Darwin posited in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Learning how to read emotions from a face could aid social interaction, reduce misunderstandings, and help a group function efficiently and harmoniously for the greater good.

When it comes to studying faces, the eyes and mouth are the most informative regions because they tend to be the most expressive. We subconsciously analyse their combined movements to figure out what someone is trying to tell us.

But relying on faces, partial or otherwise, can be misleading, cautions Aleix Martinez, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Ohio State University. Martinez is studying how we recognise facial expressions in order to teach machine-learning algorithms to do the same.

“We don’t have to be happy to smile, and we don’t always smile when we’re happy,” he points out. In fact, studies have shown that there are 19 different types of smiles – only six of which are associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure. The rest we use when we are scared, embarrassed, and in pain, among other scenarios.

Marjaan Ali, 23, from Thuwal, Saudi Arabia observes that her facial expressions differ when she has the niqab on. “I’m a bit more exaggerated,” says the recent graduate. “And I’ve noticed that, over the years, I’ve learnt to use my eyebrows quite expressively.”

The eyes, the part of the face that remains unobscured even with a niqab or mask on, can also be incredibly revealing. Just ask Shakespeare: “the eyes are the windows to the soul”.

Psychologists believe that people can infer the mental states – emotions, beliefs, desires, intentions – of others by simply looking at their eye region, in what is known as “theory of mind”.

So, will masks increase alienation?

Behind the cloth

No. Human communication is a complex and multifaceted thing – we can work our way around a piece of cloth over someone’s nose and mouth.

Yes. Alienation is already a serious problem in the modern world. Especially in cities, where many of us find it hard to relate to the strangers we come across day-to-day. Now, with our faces covered, that alienation will only sting harder.

You Decide

  1. When you wear a face mask, do you find it noticeably harder to be understood by others?
  2. Do you think the “eyes are the window to the soul”?

Activities

  1. Make your own cloth face covering following the guide in the expert links section.
  2. Write a short comedy sketch on one side of paper based on the idea that two people having a conversation behind face masks might misunderstand one another.

Some People Say...

“The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.”

Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), English novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Having a mask on can sometimes feel like there is a physical barrier between you and the person you’re communicating with. That’s especially true if you’re trying to have a deep, meaningful conversation with someone rather than a fleeting interaction at the grocery store, says sociologist Harris Ali from York University. “I think in these instances, there’s a natural tendency – in an almost unthinking manner – to take off the mask to speak.”
What do we not know?
How quickly humans will adapt. It might be a case of learning to adjust for all of us. If you find yourself struggling, psychologist Al Zayer has this advice to offer: “Over-communicate – use more words than you normally would, and ask more questions, to make sure you’re correctly picking up on the other person’s emotions. Learn how to use your other senses and body language, too.”

Word Watch

Mandate
To give official permission to do something.
Mandatory
Required by law; something that is obligatory or compulsory. From the Latin for “being commanded”.
Niqab
A veil worn by some Muslim women in public, covering all of the face apart from the eyes.
Burka
The most concealing of all Islamic veils. It is a one-piece veil that covers the face and body, often leaving just a mesh screen to see through.
Impede
To delay or prevent (someone or something) by obstructing them.
Conferred
Given as a gift or honour; awarded.
Posited
Put forward an idea or opinion.
Alienation
A state of mental difficulty and identity loss, caused by difficulties in relating to society. In Marxist theory, alienation is the state of failing to recognise oneself in the actions and work that one does.
Multifaceted
Having many sides or features.

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