August 4, 2020 |

Mumbling, Masks and the Eyes Have it

How are you enjoying living behind the mask?  Life has turned into a big masquerade party, hasn’t it?  At first it was…strange.  Now it’s been normalized.  It’s added a new dimension to people watching.  Some have chosen to use masks as yet another opportunity to make a fashion statement.  It’s changed communication and interpersonal dynamics.  Between the mask and the plexiglass panels, it’s pretty tough to order at Starbucks, isn’t it?  Masks require us to speak louder and enunciate more clearly.  If you’re a mumbler…forget it.  Time to raise your game.  It reminds me of the ancient Greek statesman Demosthenes.  Orphaned at the age of seven, Demosthenes also suffered from a severe stuttering problem.   Determined to overcome that, he practiced speaking for hours with pebbles in his mouth. He went on to become a great orator.

Nonverbal communication has been significantly impacted by masks as well.  A British study found that people look at each other only 30-60% of the time when talking, let alone make eye contact.  Fifty-five percent of communication is non-verbal, and our facial expressions are a big part of that.  How can you read someone’s facial expressions when you can only see one-third of their face?

As a student of human behavior, I find all of this fascinating.  I’m paying much more attention to people’s eyes…because…what else can you do, right?  Shakespeare is often credited with saying “eyes are the windows to the soul.”  It’s up for debate if he actually ever said that.  But whoever said it was right.  You can read others quite well simply by paying attention to their eyes.  We’re used to reading faces as a whole.  But the eyes have an amazing ability to convey not only emotion, but depth of emotion.  And I’m not talking about romantic emotion.  I’m talking about level of engagement and reaction to us.

Americans are accustomed to brief periods of mutual eye contact…deviations from that make us uncomfortable.  And yet, here we are.  For the foreseeable future, the eyes really do have it.