Masks do not hide emotion

July 8, 2020 9:29 pm

Emotional expression is a central component of social intelligence.  So what is the impact of wearing a mask?

Ursula Hess, a psychologist and expert in the communication of emotion, says masks do not interfere with the expression or ‘reading’ of emotion. She highlights some of the research in a recent interview.   Hess’s research has demonstrated that we convey most of our emotion through our eyes.  Covering the mouth focuses our attention to the eyes enabling us to pick up on more subtle emotions.

Adults and children as young as five can decode emotions.  Likewise, visual contact is not essential for picking up on others feelings.  Previous research in call centres that have found customers can ‘hear’ an agents smile.

Reading this study reminded me of work I did many years ago when I was a clinician working with immune-compromised patients.  All health care professionals had to wear masks when interacting with these patients to protect them from the various minor illnesses we all carry.  I was initially sceptical as to how psychotherapy would work with me behind a mask.  But similar to all of my colleagues, I found I was still effective. This experience early in my career encouraged me to question assumptions about what we think is ‘required’ to do a good job.

We get used to doing things one way and it ‘seems right’, but really it is just familiar.  And another way may work just as well or even better.  This insight is applicable for living and working in the time of COVID19.  Despite the work scientists are doing to find a vaccine, COVID19 is likely to be with us for a while.  We need strong relationships more than ever.  To keep each other safe and healthy, we need to continue to adjust the way we connect.

When community transmission is high, the most recent science says we should wear masks in public to protect ourselves and others. The good news is that doing so does not mean compromising on our ability to communicate our feelings.

Would you like to learn more about adapting and using disruption as a catalyst to grow – We are running free webinars to help people Become Stronger Through Change — Tuesday’s 10:00 AEST.  Each week we share bite-sized science and talk about how to apply it to adapt to working and living differently.  Register here.

Photo credit Tom Barrett on Unsplash

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