Haims: Smiling in the wake of COVID-19
Some things just put a smile on your face: a baby’s first step, a puppy playing, a beautiful piece of art. Sometimes it could be the smile on the person’s face next to you or the smile on the face of the person next to them. Sometimes a smile can become infectious.
Smiles can give the sense of warmth, trustworthiness, and affection. Smiles can also positively influence most social situations. Conversely, a frown also conveys emotions such as fear, disgust, sadness, and anger. According to Charles Darwin’s book, “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” people’s faces are at the heart of conveying a lot of information from one person to another. Darwin identified six basic emotional states: happiness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and sadness.
Ever walk into a room and sense that there is tension or happiness filling the room? While some people may be attuned to sensing happiness or tension, most can interpret the feel of a room by the smiles and/or lack of facial expression. Social cues such as smiling or frowning play a major role in nonverbal communications — what researchers call, “social mimicry.”
As face masks are impeding people’s ability to read the social cues derived from smiles and frowns, people must now learn and develop the ability to read other nonverbal cues. While it may take effort, time, and practice, learning to pay attention to people’s unspoken and unseen behaviors is going to be part of the new norm in a “face mask-wearing” world.
We are now living in a time where each of us, hiding facial emotions behind masks, must find our own way of conveying our pleasure, acceptance, annoyance, and anger in other ways. While you may not be comfortable displaying outright glee like the guy who dances in the rain while swinging his umbrella and singing, you can find something unique to you (for ya youngins’…that’s a reference to the legendary Fred Astaire).
Some body gesturing is obvious to some and to others, not so much. Consider the body gesturing of a crowd jumping up and down, giving each other high-fives, and pumping their fists and arms in the air. Most people would perceive such actions as celebratory — not threatening. Contrarily, a crowd running toward you welding sticks, bats, and yelling is most likely not running towards you to congratulate you. Physical movements often create obvious social communication.
When you cannot read someone’s face and associate it with an emotion, things can get confusing. Consider a situation where someone hangs their head low and stares at the ground while softening their voice. Interpreting the emotion they are conveying can be difficult. While they could be displaying embarrassment or shame, they could be conveying a defensive posture because they feel threatened. In the animal kingdom, a lowered head with ears pinned-back is a turn-tell threatening gesture.
Reading facial expressions is an integral part of nonverbal communication. When facial masks impede people from interpreting what another’s face is conveying, you may need to rely on other nonverbal cues such as body language.
Perhaps as we enter a new world where facial features are obscured, we can learn from those who have struggled with autism. Autism is defined as a social communication disorder, as well as a condition that has difficulty responding to others, using gestures, staying on topic, and making and keeping friends. In addition, people with autism are perceived as self-absorbed and seem to exist in a private world in which they have limited ability to successfully communicate and interact with others.
These individuals with autism are taught to identify and understand what a person communicates from the nonverbal cues as much as the words that are spoken. This is something we could learn, considering we now live in a world where we must understand how people communicate through their use of body stance and hand gestures, tone of voice, prosody and intonation, and eye contact.
If you are interested in learning about reading body language and the science behind it, go online and start your research and education with an article in Psychology Compass: “Learn tactics that boost non-verbal communication and body language.” Or, take a look at an article posted in Psychology Today: “Body Language.” If you would rather watch video to learn about body language, check out one of the world’s leading experts, Allan Pease on his TedEx video: “Body language, the power is in the palm of your hands.” Mr. Pease and his wife, Barbara, have written extensively on the subject and are considered worldwide experts.
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