The Face Behind the Mask

By Ann Brode   |   April 22, 2021

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

The other day, with this topic in mind, I initiated a socially distanced conversation in the parking lot with an anthropology student. We spoke of masks and how they alter non-verbal communication and change our perception of people… especially strangers. To explore this, I suggested that we lift ours to see what we might have missed. I was surprised to discover how much personality had actually been withheld behind his mask. I was also surprised by how risqué it felt to reveal my own full face. I almost blushed. 

Masking and distancing protocols have impaired our social confidence. As a matter of course, we avoid random encounters and minimize discourse. Acclimating to the pandemic norm has left us more insular and less outgoing. Instead of observing facial expression and making eye contact, we look the other way. When we tune out, we silence a vital source of non-verbal communication that helps us assess the comfort, sincerity, and mood of others. These days, even when we’re out and about, we feel shut in. We shrink our energy field, tuck to the side, and go about our business. No eye contact, no gesture embellishments, mouth set grimly behind the mask. In other words, Zoom aside, communication during the pandemic has gone into the negatives. 

I first observed this disturbing disintegration several months ago while cruising through the grocery store with pursed lips and a set jaw. The face under my mask was anything but pleasant. Then, I noticed how I avoided social interaction, side-stepping into the bushes on my hike whenever someone approached.  Normally gregarious, I had to make a concerted effort to make eye contact and say something agreeable. Instead of just hunkering down until the masking times are over, I want to reclaim my humanity, one smile at a time. If you’d like to join me, here are some things to consider. 

Facial muscles have a whole range of possibilities. Unfortunately, over time, they lose pliability and settle into a dominant expression. It may sound silly but the emotional tension in your face becomes a holding pattern. As such, your muscles have a default mode of scrunching, puckering, pushing, or squeezing. You see your particular configuration looking back from the mirror or a casual photo. You feel its imprint when you try to relax. Tuning in, the shape and message of this tension is pretty obvious. If your mouth pulls down, it actually looks and feels like anger or disappointment. Pinched lips could be linked to fear or disgust; a clamped jaw to determination or worry. Although not actively angry, disgusted or worried right now, your default expression delivers a clear message – both to others and yourself.  

Even if your face is hidden behind a mask and no one is looking anyway, the message gets through. Facial expression influences both what others perceive and what you actually feel. Studies have shown that smiling, even fake smiling, triggers feel-good hormones in your body and frowning, even default frowning, lights up the flight-or-fight area in your brain. Simply, pulling up the corners of your mouth can make you happier; pulling them down can make you angrier. Being aware and choosing to smile changes your perception of what’s happening. In other words: smiling makes the glass feel half full, frowning renders it half empty. 

To experience how this works for you, take a moment to consider the inconvenience of the pandemic protocols with a big old grin on your face. If you encounter some default frown-tension, just push through it until you reclaim your full smiling capacity. Then, think about it with a frown and contrast the impact of smile versus frown on your perception. Then, practice some smiling mindfulness for the rest of the day and see how it goes. Smile while exercising, smile while doing the dishes, smile while waiting in line. You may find that this small shift of awareness makes a huge difference in the way you feel and perceive your world. 

The CDC tells us that we won’t be mask-free and breezy anytime soon, regardless of vax status. So, even though it may only affect your own perception, why not smile under your mask? And, why not make eye contact and say a few pleasantries to reclaim some of your social graces? At the end of this ordeal, when the mask finally comes off, perhaps your new default expression will be a smile.


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