Facial Coverings Cover More Than the Face
Teachers read nonverbal cues and the facial expressions of their students to determine if they are understanding or engaging in a lesson. Businesspersons use facial cues to negotiate, build trust and evaluate truthfulness. Health professionals can build rapport with patients and use nonverbal cues to make a diagnosis. Authentic smiles lead to positive customer reactions, customer-employee rapport, customer satisfaction, and perceptions of emotional performance. Parents, spouses and friends all use facial expressions to communicate with each other. Reading, recognizing and adapting to nonverbal cues is an essential part of emotional intelligence that leads to more effective, healthy and collaborative relationships.
Whether those relationships are long-term, such as with a colleague or a spouse or short-term, such as while navigating the subway or airport.
There is a lot in a smile or a grimace. Our faces tell a story. Each wrinkle, bend and movement communicate to others our emotions, concerns, fears and signals. What’s even more powerful is that facial expressions are universal. Darwin (1872) was the first to suggest that emotions and their expression are biologically innate. However, it wasn’t until Tomkins (1962) that Darwin’s theories were tested. Since then, there have been over 30 scientific studies solidifying the universality of emotions.
There are seven basic emotions that are expressed across the globe. The same facial musculature that exists in adult humans exists in newborn infants and is fully functional at birth (Ekman & Oster, 1979). In addition, even congenitally blind individuals produce the same facial expressions as sighted individuals do (Cole, Jenkins, & Shott, 1989; Galati, Miceli, & Sini, 2001; Galati, Sini, Schmidt, & Tinti, 2003; Matsumoto & Willingham, 2009). 79% of people are able to accurately recognize emotions of happy, sad, and angry from eyes alone, but not everyone is equally good at judging emotions. 18% of people make mistakes on every emotion in this context (Roitblat et al., 2020).
With the limitation of facial expressions, specifically smiling, it is important we compensate with other nonverbal and verbal behaviors (Gabriel et al, 2015).
When a single emotion occurs, the expression typically lasts between 0.5 to 4 seconds and involves the entire face (Ekman, 2003). This is known as a macro-expression. However, micro-expressions are expressions that go on and off the face in a fraction of a second. Micro-expressions can be easily missed in the blink of an eye.
In the U.S. many of us are wearing facial coverings for the first time as a part of our day-to-day apparel. From Disney to the NBA, retailers everywhere are manufacturing facial coverings. As we head out of our homes and back to in-person work and life, we may be losing more than we know. Specialists in nonverbal communication have already seen significant negative effects of face coverings on perceptions of empathy in other countries where face coverings have been worn for years in public (Wong et. al, 2013).
The research is clear that humans express a great deal through nonverbal communication. When half of our faces are covered, what will be lost? In addition, how will the anonymity of a face covering impact the way we interact and communicate with others? “Different levels of smiles lead to perceptions of warmth, competence, trustworthiness, attractiveness, etc.,” according to Fan Liu, an assistant professor at Adelphi University whose research focuses on nonverbal communication. With the limitation of facial expressions, specifically smiling, it is important we compensate with other nonverbal and verbal behaviors (Gabriel et al, 2015).
It is likely that we will struggle to connect with others as quickly and may miss cues that would impact learning, negotiations, collaboration and general human respect. For now, be kind, patient and thoughtful of your own nonverbals as we enter a new world.
By Dana Borchert, Ph.D. & Savannah Price, M.A.
Cole, P. M., Jenkins, P. A., & Shott, C. T. (1989). Spontaneous expressive control in blind and sighted children. Child Development, 683-688.
Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of emotions in animals and man. London: Murray, 11.
Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed (2nd ed.). New York: Times Books. Ekman & Oster, 1979
Ekman, P., & Oster, H. (1979). Facial expressions of emotion. Annual Review of Psychology, 30, 527-554.
Gabriel, A. S., Acosta, J. D., & Grandey, A. A. (2015). The value of a smile: Does emotional performance matter more in familiar or unfamiliar exchanges? Journal of Business and Psychology, 30, 37-50.
Galati, D., Miceli, R., & Sini, B. (2001). Judging and coding facial expression of emotions in congenitally blind children. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 25(3), 268-278.
Galati, D., Sini, B., Schmidt, S., & Tinti, C. (2003). Spontaneous facial expressions in congenitally blind and sighted children aged 8–11. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 97(7), 418-428.Matsumoto & Willingham, 2009)
Matsumoto, D., & Willingham, B. (2009). Spontaneous facial expressions of emotion of congenitally and non-congenitally blind individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(1), 1-10.
Roitblat, Y., Cohensedgh, S., Frig-Levinson, E., Suman, E., & Shterenshis, M. (2019). Emotional expressions with minimal facial muscle actions Report 1: Cues and targets. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. http: 10.1007/s12144-019-0151-5
Roitblat, Y., Cohensedgh, S., Frig-Levinson, E., Cohen, M., Dadbin, K., Shohed, C., Shvartsman, D., & Shterenshis, M. (2020). Emotional expressions with minimal facial muscle actions Report 2: Recognition of emotions. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. doi: 10.1007/s12144-020-00691-7
Tomkins, S. S. (1962). Affect, imagery, and consciousness (Vol. 1: The positive affects). New York: Springer.
Wong, C. K., Yip, B. H., Mercer, S., Griffiths, S., Kung, K., Wong, M. C., Chor, J., & Wong, S. Y. (2013). Effect of facemasks on empathy and relational continuity: a randomised controlled trial in primary care. BMC Family Practice, 14, 200. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2296-14-200