Look Beyond the Mask.
Recently, a four-year-old child, calling out the start of a race between his pre-school peers, was overheard shouting, “On your masks, get set, go!” Funny, but also poignant. Since February 2020, the wearing of masks has become the norm, whatever the age, gender, culture or country.
People have always been very good at reading the facial expressions of others. This ability to read emotions from a face has helped us to socially interact and understand each other.
But now our faces are hidden by masks, especially our mouths, traditionally that part of the face which most visibly expresses emotion.
Masks have now forced us to look for other cues; the eyes – are they frowning in confusion or anger, or are they crinkled by sadness or a hidden, happy smile? What about body posture – are the arms folded defensively or are they open, palms out denoting welcome or trust? The truth is, facial expressions are integrated in a corresponding package of cues which include body language, tone of voice, hand movement, even silence – cues that interact simultaneously.
Being aware of these cues is important in our masked ‘new normal’. Awareness enables you to see beyond the expressions hidden by the mask, and sense the non-verbals expressed in eyes, body and gestures, thereby gaining a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of how people feel and what they really mean.
In other words, it’s not always the responsibility of the person wearing the mask to make him or herself heard or understood. We as listeners must make the needed adjustments, too.
However, this ‘new normal’ can be exhausting in that it is continuously stretching our ability to adapt. Children are much more flexible. Their acceptance of change is founded in the fact that their histories are short while their futures are vast plains of opportunity. For them, it truly is, “On your masks, get set, GO!” We can learn from them.