3 Ways to Show Emotions While Wearing a Mask

Here’s what science shows about the ways people express themselves, and how we can replicate that even with masks on.

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My smile is my superpower. I first realized its power as an international student studying in Cambridge, UK. Having grown up Muslim in the Middle East, I moved to Cambridge in 2001 to pursue my Ph.D. I was scheduled to arrive in the UK on September 18th, 2001 – exactly one week after the tragedies of 9/11 unfolded. 

I had no idea what kind of reception I would get in the UK, given the political climate. I wore a hijab at the time and wondered: would I be singled out as a Muslim? Would my new classmates and neighbors be receptive to me? 

I quickly learned that my smile was my olive branch. Those days were marked by fear in society, as well as a recognition that things were going to change – not entirely different from the changes and uncertainty we’re facing amid the global pandemic; and the moment of reckoning we’re finally confronting with systemic racism and injustice. But I found that if I could connect with someone emotionally and authentically, and show my intent with my expressions, then people could look past our differences.

Fast forward to today: we’re facing the reality that we will be wearing masks in public for the foreseeable future. Make no mistake, I am all for this from a health and safety perspective. But I can’t help but feel like something is lost. My smile – my superpower – is covered all the time. 

We need to think about what emotional expression looks like when we’re all wearing masks. I’ve spent my career studying expressions of emotion, and teaching technology to understand these expressions the same way we understand them in one another. That was the focus of my Ph.D. work in Cambridge and is the premise of the company I co-founded in Boston, Affectiva.

Over the course of my research and my company’s work, we have analyzed more than 9.5 million facial expressions from 90 countries around the world. As I discuss in my book, Girl Decoded, this work taught me quite a bit about interpreting others’ emotions, and even the nuances of expressing my own, over the years.

Here’s what science shows about the ways people express themselves, and how we can replicate that even with masks on. 

Look at the entirety of someone’s face for emotional cues.

Smiling is one of the primary ways we express ourselves, whether it’s with loved ones, coworkers, or strangers we pass on the street. Unfortunately, masks will hide the smiles on our lips, but science shows that we may be able to discern clues from other parts of the face to understand how someone is emoting. 

Dating back to the mid-19th century, scientist Duchenne de Boulogne found that a genuine smile activates the full face – both the lower half as well as the upper half, the latter of which will not be covered by a mask. A true smile of enjoyment prompts your cheeks to raise, and crow feet wrinkles to appear at the corners of the eyes. 

So, when smiling at someone – or when interpreting someone else’s emotions – we’ll need to think about the entire face. The typical “polite smile” you might share with a stranger in passing won’t trigger these cues on the upper half of the face, so we’ll need to be conscious of working harder, perhaps emoting more ourselves, and looking more closely for these subtle cues on others’ faces as we interact. 

The eyes are the window to the soul. 

The eyes have long been recognized as important communicators of peoples’ cognitive and emotional states. You’ve probably heard the saying, “the eyes are the window to the soul.” As it turns out, that sentiment is validated in scientific studies of how people express and interpret emotions. 

British psychologist and autism expert, Simon Barron Cohen has studied this extensively, including through his “reading the mind through the eyes” test. Designed to measure a person’s empathy, the test shows viewers photos of people’s eyes, and asks them to determine the emotion shown. These aren’t just simplistic emotions like happy or sad; rather, the test includes examples of complex expressions like anxiety, flirtation, embarrassment, or guilt, all demonstrated solely by the look in someone’s eyes. 

Though of course some people perform better on this test than others, the basic premise shows that people can determine quite a bit about emotions by looking at someone’s eyes. As we increasingly have our masks on, we should use this to our advantage, both looking into people’s eyes and thinking about how we can use our eyes to emote as well. Central to all of this, of course, is eye contact. Though the idea of looking deeply into someone’s eyes may seem a bit awkward, eye contact remains an incredibly powerful form of human connection that we would be remiss to overlook. 

Strengthen emotional cues beyond the face. 

While there’s much focus on the face, it’s important to remember that people emote in a range of ways beyond just our facial expressions. Research shows that the vast majority of the way people communicate is through non-verbal signals, including facial expressions as well as vocal intonations, gestures and other cues. 

When we cannot plainly show our faces, we should amplify these other modes of expression. This could be as simple as nodding to someone to say hello, or waving a passerby. Or, if you’re speaking to someone with a mask on, think about showing excitement through your tone of voice or speech patterns. These are small things we all do in our daily lives, but are signals we can amplify to inject more emotion into our interactions.  

Let your emotions be your guide.

As the world reopens, and so many industries figure out their “new normal,” it’s up to us as individuals to rethink the way we express ourselves and interpret others’ emotions. This isn’t just a nice thing to do – emotional connection is crucial in so many areas. Think about going to the doctor and not being able to gauge their interpretation of your symptoms, or speaking to a colleague and not being able to determine how they’re reacting to a new idea or project.

We may all need to work a bit hard to show emotions – amplifying our “smize” (smiling with your eyes) a la Tyra Banks, or gesturing a bit more with our hands. But, I think we can all agree that a few crow feet wrinkles are a small price to pay for authentic human connection. 

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