What's Happening Behind the Mask?

Recent restrictions due to the pandemic have transformed the way we live around the world. These restrictions have likely influenced how you need to structure your day, and how you need to behave in social settings. Among many of the new social norms, wearing a mask might have the biggest effect on your social interactions.

Until now, the Western world has never needed to wear masks to go out for groceries or get the mail. Today, wearing a mask is becoming more and more of the cultural norm. Seeing another person’s face and facial expressions convey the social cues that help us feel empathy, joy, and other important emotions. However, with a mask now covering the majority of our faces, you might wonder — is this creating an emotional disconnect?

Social Cues

Social cues enhance our bond and interactions with friends and family. Body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice each contribute to what you are trying to communicate. Because of social distancing and the need to wear a mask, communication is less effective right now. The stress of having to follow these rules has created more of a social gap rather than connection.

As a result, these social boundaries often cause us to be less expressive when interacting with someone. Masks not only hide most of your facial expressions but they also hinder your voice, muffling the sound and making it difficult to determine the level and clarity at which you are speaking.

Missing the Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are a phenomenon that occurs when one animal observes another animal’s actions, causing the observing animal to imitate the action. Mirror neurons are important in facial communication because they allow you to learn through imitation, and to empathize and understand better the emotion that is being expressed. This phenomenon is developed during childhood and remains a reliable tool for communication throughout your life.

A mask hinders your ability to communicate this way, which may cause your brain to question the sincerity of emotions that someone is trying to convey. Are they fake smiling or genuinely smiling? Are they sad even if they say they are fine? It’s difficult to understand how someone is feeling through only their eyes. There are transparent face masks available that allow you to see someone’s mouth, although they do not help with the muffled sound. However, these masks may provide a better way to utilize mirror neurons.

Long-Term Social Impact

The obstruction of facial expressions and poor sound quality of voice both negatively impact social interactions. They create layers of obstacles when trying to have a conversation with friends and family, and make it even harder to communicate with strangers with whom you do not know any of their characteristics. Without a vaccine for COVID-19, wearing a mask could become a part of the social norm for years to come. Even if a vaccine is developed, there could still be residual fear that keeps you practicing these measures for some time after.

How to Communicate Better

There is no substitute for a mask-free interaction while sitting in close quarters, but there are some ways to enhance and even empower the quality of your interactions and experiences.

A Quiet Space

Maybe your social interactions should not take place near a busy street or in a bustling park or a restaurant with music playing in the background. Instead, seek out a quieter place. This could be as simple as inviting a friend to come and sit at a safe distance on your porch. If you have a backyard, you can arrange a picnic or have a campfire at night. A quiet space will provide less distraction, helping you to focus better on the person speaking. It will also reduce the amount of effort it takes to understand someone wearing a mask.

Express, Enunciate, and Repeat

Since you are limited with the range of facial expressions you can use, you may have to perform your actions with a little more verve than usual. One of the things you might forget is to speak with your body because you are distracted by everything else that is hindering your communication. It’s important to use your hands and head movements to express the gravity of what you are trying to say.

Remember to speak more clearly. Because you are muffled, using clear speech in a strong tone can help others understand and focus on what you are saying. Don’t rely on a head nod as a sign of understanding — they might just be being polite. Ask the friend or family member you are speaking to if they hear you and if they understand. If it’s important information, ask them to repeat it back to you.

Use Technology

Technology might be your greatest ally. While nothing compares to face-to-face interaction, programs like FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype are the next best thing. These programs offer you a mask-free and intimate form of communication. You can sit in the comfort of your home and chat with friends and family — or participate in meetings necessary for your recovery.

Because you are free from wearing a mask, you will be able to connect through facial expressions. Consider utilizing the advantages of technology as a primary form of communication whenever possible.

Because there is so much uncertainty about when things will return to normal, you have to remember to be patient. Be patient with your friends, your family, and yourself. This is especially true for communication. Do not form conclusions about how someone is feeling or thinking. Instead, try to listen more attentively and continue communicating until you both reach an understanding.

If you are feeling lost and lonely and the lack of quality communication today is causing you to isolate yourself from others, it’s time to seek help. True Recovery provides 24/7 assistance that is built on finding alternative forms of treatment and identifying the kind of care you need. You are not alone, and we’re here for you every step of the way. To learn more, call us today at (866) 399-6528.