A year of smiling behind a mask takes its toll

Health Beauty | Alison Bowen 5 Oct 2021

When we see someone for the first time, we interpret many tiny things. In fact, 42 things - that's how many muscles make up the face.

But since the pandemic began and mask-wearing became crucial, we are often interacting with people whose face we can only half see. This goes both ways, eliminating our ability to offer a smile or a sympathetic grin.

As some people return to offices, many of them are experiencing conversations without the ability to communicate via full face.

So what does it mean to go more than a year without seeing smiles as steadily as we did before? Said Peter Revenaugh, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Rush University Medical Center: "There has to be some misinterpretation on some level without having the full face to gauge the emotion."

Facial communication is one of the first ways we interact. In a first impression, we make assumptions about a person, often based on things like symmetry. And we try to mimic what the other person's face is expressing.

"We're not doing that right now. We're not walking down the hall and when someone smiles at you, smiling back," he said. "But that's a very big part of social communication."

A 2020 study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that dividing the face into a visible half and invisible half might enhance the perception of negative emotions and diminish the perception of positive emotions.

"Emotions such as surprise or disgust that utilize the mouth may be mistaken for strongly negative emotions such as anger or sadness, and a smile may seem diminished or less genuine when the teeth and lips are occluded," authors wrote. "Masks make it incredibly challenging to display and perceive each other's facial expressions, which are critical and necessary components of social interaction."

The muscles around the mouth that create a smile are key to construing how we feel and what we want to convey, Revenaugh said.

He knows this first hand. As a surgeon who often wears masks around patients, he is careful to use other cues to be clear when, for example, he is making a joke.

"Some of my jokes fall flat because they're not really sure. They can't see me smiling."

Responding to issues posed by masks hiding faces, some speech therapists wear see-through masks so clients can see their mouths move. Various consumer masks with see-through partitions so people can still see a mouth are on the market to address this.

Revenaugh has tried to use his eyes more to express meaning. "Our eyes crinkle at the corner when we're doing a true smile, and most people around the world recognize that as a happy feeling," he said.

And when he's with a patient, both masked, and he's joking? "I'll simply say: 'I'm joking,'" he said.

Chicago Tribune (TNS)



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