CHICAGO — When we see someone for the first time, we interpret many tiny things.
In fact, at least 42 things — that’s how many muscles make up the face.
But since the pandemic began and mask-wearing became crucial, we are often interacting with people whose face we can only half see. And this goes both ways, eliminating our ability to offer a friendly smile or a sympathetic grin.
As some people return to offices, many of them are experiencing conversations without the ability to communicate via full face.
Peter Revenaugh has been studying how people interpret faces for years. He is a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Rush University Medical Center who works to treat disorders in the facial nerve. Many of his patients have facial paralysis or symmetry issues.
So what does it mean to go more than a year without seeing smiles as steadily as we did before?
“There has to be some misinterpretation on some level without having the full face to gauge the emotion,” Revenaugh said.
Facial communication is one of the first ways we interact. In a first impression, we make assumptions about a person, often based on things like symmetry. And we try to mimic what the other person’s face is expressing.
“And we’re not doing that right now. We’re not walking down the hall and someone smiles at you, you smile back at them,” he said. “But that’s a very big part of social communication.”
A 2020 study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that dividing the face into a visible half and invisible half might enhance the perception of negative emotions and diminish the perception of positive emotions. “Emotions such as surprise or disgust that utilize the mouth may be mistaken for strongly negative emotions such anger or sadness, and a smile may seem diminished or less genuine when the teeth and lips are occluded,” authors wrote.