Let’s talk about faces.
Our faces communicate countless messages almost constantly. Specifically, our mouths are crucial to communication. We, of course, use our mouths to relay verbal messages. However, the visual messages we communicate with our mouths are perhaps just as critical. We smile, grimace, gasp, purse our lips. We snarl, grit our teeth, chuckle and grin.
How strange it is to live in a time when covering the mouth in a mask is becoming more and more commonplace.
In an Associated Press article published online April 20, Ted Anthony discussed some of the strangeness surrounding this change in nonverbal communication and message receptivity. Among other things, he wrote that without being able to see half of another person’s face, things can be disorienting and downright awkward.
“A partial inventory of the information that’s lost when the mask goes up: Smiles. Frowns. Lip movements. Crinkle lines at the mouth’s edge. Cheek twitches that indicate approval or disapproval. Reflexive gestures that collaborate with the eyes to say: Hey, I mean no harm. Or: Hey — back off,” Anthony wrote in the article.
Eyes may be the windows to the soul, but mouths are the means of connection. Not only are we given cues to someone’s approachability through the set of their mouth, but we are also used to matching the visual of a moving mouth with the auditority words.
Let’s face it: We are used to looking at each others’ mouths, and when that is taken away, communication changes.
Recently, one of my professors wore a mask for the first few minutes of our Zoom class session. The combination of his mouth being covered and the barrier of communicating over video made him shockingly difficult to understand.
Which brings us to another new nonverbal communication challenge of these uncharted times: Communicating via video conference
Don’t get me wrong — video calls are great. In a time when physical contact is almost nonexistent, I am extremely grateful that we still have any capability of visual nonverbal communication.
You have to admit, though, a video conference with 20 tiny rectangles is a lot different than class together. It’s harder to read the room. You can’t tell if you’re the only one who semi-chuckled at your professor’s joke, or if everyone else did, too. You can’t tell if everyone is listening to your comment with rapt attention, or if they’re tuning you out completely. Slight head nods of agreement go a long way toward connecting with a speaker in a physical classroom, but now these small movements of approval are almost imperceptible.
We won’t even discuss the possibility that most of the time, we’re all more focused on our own rectangle than we are on anyone else’s.
So, let’s call it like we see it — nonverbal communication, or the lack thereof, is different right now. Luckily, though, good connection is still possible. For now, we should all just put in a little extra effort to make what nonverbal cues we have more engaging and encouraging.
When wearing a mask out in public, try a friendly head nod to the stranger you pass on the street instead of a smile. A kind wave to the grocery store employee could also take the place of a grin.
On your video conferences, try to sit up straight and near the computer so your professor knows you’re engaged. Make your head nods a little more pronounced when you’re agreeing, and try smiling with teeth when someone makes a joke. Also, don’t be afraid to use those two handy-dandy reaction buttons on Zoom. Even if you are muted, an occasional thumbs up or clapping emoji reassures the teacher that you are still with them.
Our new means of communicating may be disorienting and a bit annoying, but we can adapt. We’re in this together, and we need to keep finding ways to let each other know we’re on the same team through both our verbal and nonverbal communication.