Life Advice



What does it mean for us to have a year with smiles hiding behind masks?

Alison Bowen, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Dating Advice

“Masks make it incredibly challenging to display and perceive each other’s facial expressions, which are critical and necessary components of social interaction as they help individuals to modify their behavior in order to align with social communication and behavioral norms,” they wrote.

The muscles around the mouth that create a smile are key to construing how we feel and what we want to convey, Revenaugh said. He knows this firsthand. As a surgeon who often wears masks around patients, he is careful to use other cues to be clear when, for example, he is making a joke.

“Some of my jokes fall flat,” he said, “because they’re not really sure. They can’t see me smiling.”

During the pandemic, he has watched as others experience the limitations of not utilizing our full face to communicate, and how we are trying to cope. Responding to issues posed by masks hiding faces, some speech therapists, for example, wear see-through masks so clients can see their mouths move. Various consumer masks with see-through partitions so people can still see a mouth are on the market to address this.

Revenaugh has tried to use his eyes more to express meaning. “Our eyes crinkle at the corner when we’re doing a true smile, and most people around the world recognize that as a happy feeling,” he said.

Across languages, people recognize expressions in the same way, such as positive associations with smiling or negative associations with a furrowed brow.

Most of us take these tiny facial muscles for granted, he said.


His patients who have facial scars or paralysis find these issues psychologically challenging. They often feel misinterpreted or that people make snap judgments about them based on their facial features. For those who have symmetry issues, smiling might bring one side of the mouth up but not the other.

“The patients with facial paralysis or facial movement disorders, they consistently come in and say they are often characterized as being less approachable, less happy, less basically everything,” he said.

And generally, people who have a more furrowed brow after aging causes some expressions to be more ingrained reported being construed as less happy and less approachable.

Ways to adjust to inhibited facial communication include making more of an effort to construe positivity. People can employ a cadence to their speech to guide others, for example. Crinkling the corners of the eyes, a lighter tone of the voice, all can help.

And when Revenaugh’s with a patient, both masked, and he’s joking?

“I’ll simply say, ‘I’m joking,’” he said.

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