Seven Body Language Tips for Mask Wearers

By Greg Nathan posted July 30, 2020

The 19th century French neurologist, Guillaume Duchenne, was the first scientist to systematically document the ways in which the human face portrays emotions. His findings on the automatic facial expression that occurs when we are genuinely pleased to see someone, led to the ‘Duchenne Smile’ being named after him. What makes this authentic smile different to a fake smile, sometimes called a ‘social smile’, is the natural crinkling that occurs around the eyes when the mouth muscles contract.

The recent addition of masks as part of our dress code when we leave the house, has meant the omission of an important part of how we physically express our emotions. Masks have of course been traditionally used to disguise a person’s identity, or for entertainment purposes. Today they have a more pragmatic purpose – to help keep ourselves and others safe.

Given many of us will be wearing masks over the coming months, we will all need to work harder to communicate our feelings when physically facing other people. Here’s a few tips to ensure your warmth doesn’t stay hidden.

Lets start with the smile. When wearing a mask, the superficial social smile will no longer cut it. If you are going to smile at someone, think about why you’re genuinely glad to see them. This will remind your brain to trigger the Duchenne Smile, with its associated eye reflexes.

Now let’s talk eyebrows. A brief raising of the eyebrows, sometimes known as an eyebrow flash, is universally recognised as a positive signal of acknowledgement, especially when accompanied with a head nod. Tilting the head slightly is also a universal sign of curiosity and interest. I learned this one from my dog, Leo.

Making waves. Something I’ve become more conscious of recently in my Zoom calls is the power of a small wave. This simple, warm demonstration of acknowledgement can be almost as good as a hand shake, both in virtual and face to face settings. Another hand movement that does the trick is the good old thumbs up.

Here’s looking at you. In my last two tips on virtual meetings I’ve talked about the importance of maintaining eye contact with the camera. Similarly, when we’re wearing a mask, our eyes become more important for communicating interest and friendliness. The eyes are known as the windows of the soul because our eye muscles communicate a huge array of emotional and mental states, whether we are aware of it or not. When wearing a mask, you may want to exaggerate natural eye expressions to get your points across.

Say it again. While tone of voice is typically one of the most powerful ways to communicate empathy and warmth, this becomes a little harder when our comments are muffled by a mask. So remember to speak loudly and clearly. And accept it as normal if people ask you to repeat yourself.

Mirror mirror on the wall. This last tip may sound corny. But because many of us are still getting used to our masks, try practising some of the behaviours I’ve recommended above in front of a mirror. This will enable you to see how you’ll be coming across to others.

A final note about smiling. While others may not be able to see your mouth, your brain still knows when you’re smiling and generates chemicals associated with feeling happy. So even though others can’t see them, there’s still an inherent benefit in showing your pearly whites.

One interesting benefit I have noticed since masks have become mandatory in Melbourne, where I live, is the sense of connection I now feel with my fellow mask wearers. It’s a reminder that we are all truly in this together.

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