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Experts observe effect pandemic-era masks are having on human communication

masks vs no masks denver
Posted at 9:33 PM, Feb 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-01 11:44:47-05

As COVID-19 positivity rates in many places in the U.S., schools and counties have started to announce suspensions of mask mandates. Seeing full faces again could have a dramatic impact on our moods and interactions with others, according to social scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Greenfield teaches at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, specializing in “how policies help shape the human experience, and how humans shape policies,” she says.

She said the masking policies we’ve had to adopt during the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted the way we communicate with each other, forcing us to replace nonverbal cues we’re evolved to read.

“We as humans do get so much information from nonverbal communication, with facial expressions, obviously, being an essential component of that,” Dr. Greenfield said. “Especially for folks who really do depend on those nonverbal cues, to help them understand that communication that’s happening, this will be a really important transition that will help in terms of streamlining communication.”

Research has repeatedly shown that smiles, for example, can be “contagious,” and that the simple act of smiling can release feel-good hormones in our brain and boost our moods. Having our mouths covered by masks for much of the past two years has no doubt impacted this, Greenfield said.

At the same time, she said our ability to adapt to changing circumstances has been on full display over the course of the pandemic. She has seen an exaggeration of cues on the top half of the face, uncovered by masks—with the eyes and eyebrows, for example—and more hand signals employed while talking. For some, she said life without masks will require another adjustment.

“I know I’ve heard from folks—and I think I’ve even experienced this myself—where sometimes having the mask can feel like a relief because you don’t have to worry about how your face is configured,” Greenfield said. “So, it’s sort of interesting to think about now what it will be like for folks who need to pay attention all of a sudden to something we haven’t worried about.”

If another COVID-19 variant arises and causes a large enough surge to require mask requirements to return, Dr. Greenfield said we have proven to ourselves we can adapt and continue communicating with each other.

“I mean, it’s nice to see people smiling, you know?” said Sean Morgan, a tourist visiting Colorado from Pennsylvania. “When people are in a good spot, and they’re smiling and talking to each other, it just makes everything else better.”

This story was originally published by Rob Harris of KMGH in Denver, Colorado.