‘Unmasking’ communication during COVID-19

The head of a white woman wearing a white face mask with a big toothy smile on the mask.
Center director Patty Raun provides pandemic-related communication tips in a VT News video.

We all have become well-versed in the science of staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic: wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart, and properly washing our hands.

As we go to check out at the grocery store, we now raise our voices to understand each other, or face being asked to repeat ourselves because the mask muffles sound. When having a social exchange with someone in the aisle, we offer the stranger or acquaintance a warm smile, but it often goes unnoticed. We may even find that we have trouble recognizing friends.

Masks disrupt social interactions. It might be a frustrating addition to the stress felt this year, but it is one that most people are experiencing, and there is a science behind overcoming this new social obstacle.

Language is not just what we hear: it’s also what we see. Body language makes up a large portion of how we interpret and understand each other.

The famous 7-38-55 rule, linked to studies done by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, states that only 7% of communication is verbal, while 38% is conveyed through tone of voice and 55% is done through body language. While some argue over the exact ratio, much can be learned from studying the communication that happens without words.

The brain takes in a lot of data when comprehending the meaning of and behind someone’s communication: both the sounds and the motions, i.e., the words being said and how they’re being said as well as the way the mouth, face, and body move.

Many psychologists refer to the “Duchenne smile” when discussing emotional cues. A Duchenne smile is an expression of “true enjoyment,” where simultaneously the zygomaticus major muscle lifts the corners of the mouth and the orbicularis oculi muscles lift your cheeks and form crinkles around your eyes.

The name gives credit to the French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne, who used electric currents to stimulate facial muscles to study facial expressions. In 1862 Duchenne wrote that while the zygomaticus major muscle can be forced into action, only the “sweet emotions of the soul” can trigger the orbicularis oculi. The orbicularis oculi muscles “unmask” false friends, he said.

In a VT News Daily Video titled “Overcoming communication challenges in a COVID-19 world”, Center for Communicating Science director Patty Raun points out that a true smile shows up whether we’re masked or not—we just have to know to look for it around the eyes.

Because we have long relied on the mouth for cues, many people have trouble accurately pairing people’s eye expressions to their emotions, but a main indicator of people’s emotions or stance toward you lies in the eyes. Close attention to facial expression and body language by both a speaker and a listener can help improve “masked communication,” Raun says.

A group of scientists at Lab in the Wild currently have a Social Intelligence Test on their website to see how well people can identify a person’s emotions just based on their eyes. Taking the test shows just how challenging it can be to accurately read emotion in eyes alone. This test was created by a U.K. group and only functions for those who speak English and are from Western countries and have Western conceptions of emotional displays, according to the website.

While some of us may not have paid much attention to body language before, the pandemic has focused attention on it. According to Cheryl Chambers, head coach of the speech and debate team at Mississippi State University, you can tell a lot about a person’s emotions from looking at their physical stance. Are they turned toward you or away from you? Are they standing straight or slouched?

Chambers offers some tips to better communicate and read others’ emotions in these days of mask wearing:

  1. Over-communicate: Exaggerate your body expressions and stances to better convey your emotions: raise your eyebrows, give a thumbs up, and nod at someone. If you want to convey interest, make sure to face the other person, feet facing them, and nod every so often to assure them that you are listening.
  2. Make eye contact: Eye contact longer than three seconds creates a more lasting bond.3 While maintaining eye contact, notice if the person similarly holds eye contact, the position of their eyebrows, and if their cheeks are raised, signaling a smile.
  3. Use your voice: How you say what you say goes a long way. Think about your tone, volume, and filler words. Instead of raising your voice significantly, which can convey aggression, try to enunciate more when having a hard time projecting your voice in a mask.

Try out these tips the next time you run into someone on a walk or pass someone at work!

Practicing social distancing does not mean throwing relationships and social interaction to the wayside. If anything, going out of the way to properly communicate with someone during the pandemic shows an extra care for your friends and community members.

Understanding others starts with understanding the small ways we communicate emotions to each other. And where there’s room for misunderstanding—which is always, pandemic or no pandemic—it never hurts to ask for clarification.

“And I really, really recommend,” says Raun, “careful, careful, careful listening.”

By Catherine Watling, Center for Communicating Science student intern


“The Psychological Study of Smiling.” Association for Psychological Science. Accessed: 5 November 2020. Available: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/the-psychological-study-of-smiling.

“Social Intelligence Test.” Lab in the Wild. Accessed 5 November 2020. Available: http://socialintelligence.labinthewild.org/mite/.

“3 ways to improve communication while wearing a mask, from a top speech coach.” CNN. Accessed 5 November 2020. Available: https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/05/health/communicate-with-mask-wellness-partner/index.html.

“In an Era of Face Masks, We’re All a Little More Face Blind.” New York Times. Accessed 12 November 2020. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/31/health/covid-masks-face-blindness.html?referringSource=articleShare.’

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