Is wearing masks getting in the way of social interactions?

Wearing a mask is becoming the new norm of the post-coronavirus society. With what consequences on our social interactions and our understanding of others?

Prof Ursula Hess, facial expression and emotion researcher, provide some answers based on her research in an interview conducted by Stella Marie Hombach.

In her research, Prof Ursula Hess observed that recognizing emotional expressions is no worse when our mouth and nose are covered. Thanks to our multitude of facial muscles involved in facial expression, the observation of the eyes area is generally enough to recognize someone’s feelings. Only fear and surprise caused confusion as we usually rely on the way the mouth is open to differentiate both emotions.  

Indeed, the eyes are a powerful vector of expression, but, being sad, scared, angry, or happy is also expressed by the way we speak and move. We are feeling and carrying our emotions with our whole body. Our attitude, gestures, rhythm and modulation of our voice are enough clues for the observer and listener to understand our emotional state. 

In her research, Prof Ursula Hess observed that covering mouth and nose does not seem to prevent social mimicry, which is when we naturally mirror the other’s behavior. This makes us feel closer and judge the interaction more positive. In the study, participants imitated the smile of another person even when this smile was hidden.

Children of primary school age are barely less able than adults to recognize emotions. However, for toddlers, seeing faces that look different, disrupts their bearings and can, therefore, be stressful. Parents can familiarize their children with the mask in a playful way, for example, by placing it in front of their face for a short time, then removing it again. Toddlers learn quickly and get used to the new situation.

Prof Ursula Hess suggests that wearing a mask as a sign of solidarity and as an expression of mutual consideration for others, can bring us together and create a sense of community.

Article based on an interview by Stella Marie Hombach in Scientific American’s German-language sister publication Spektrum der Wissenschaft.

Prof Ursula Hess is a facial expression and emotion researcher, deputy dean for international affairs at the faculty of life sciences at Humboldt University of Berlin.

To read the full article in English:

To read the full article in French:

Written by:
Lucie Ramet

Clinical Psychologist

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