I love that the month of August celebrates National Smile day. Smiling is powerful. It releases a flurry of feel-good hormones that elevate our mood, decrease stress, and reduce anger. And when people see our smile, they have brain neurons, called mirror neurons, which prompt them to smile back.

But with so many of our smiles hidden behind masks now, I’m wondering what we can do to keep them shining through.

Last week I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in many months. As I sat down at the picnic table, I felt like we were characters in a Netflix crime show where the witness is promised anonymity.

She appeared as a silhouette with the hot summer sun shining down on her like a blinding spotlight. A big mask and dark sunglasses distorted her voice and face so that she was almost unrecognizable!

We depend on our ability to decode each other’s faces and voices to navigate our relationships. How do we connect with only half a face?

Masks Are a Big Deal

I’m trying to care more about what people experience when it comes to wearing masks. It’s worth acknowledging some tradeoffs we make when we wear them.

I hear people say, “What’s the big deal? Just put on a mask!” Wearing masks IS a really big deal. I know looping the elastic around our ears is easy enough, but this simple (and effective) practice comes with some compromises.

Masks change the way we connect with each other. And our connections with each other are the number one reason we live well and live longer. (Yes, I said the number one reason.)

Masks affect the way we are heard and seen. And this affects the way we get and give support to each other. If we must continue to wear masks, then we better get better at it.Here are a few ways that will help us do just that.

Our Facial Expressions Are Emotional Radars

We learn how to read people’s faces early on. We interpret a grimace of pain, a frown of contempt, or a smirk of sarcasm. Facial expressions help us understand an apology or translate the promises we make. They spark a sequence of smiles and goodwill.

To preserve this emotional radar, let’s develop habits to communicate what can no longer be seen behind the mask.

  • Be intentional about smiling with your eyes.
  • Nod your head in agreement and to show compassion.
  • “Face” each other with your eyes, and your posture to show you care.

Now’s a Good Time to Ask, “Can You Hear Me Now?”

The importance of hearing each other is fairly obvious. When we stumble through conversations because we can’t hear, we feel confused and frustrated.

Soft voices, noisy environments, unfamiliar dialects, and lazy speech patterns distort what we hear. So, we guess what’s being said, or tune out and disconnect altogether.

You’d be surprised how many people read lips to enhance their hearing. Now, we must make a better effort to communicate. We can try to

  • Speak up.
  • Speak slowly.
  • Speak clearly.

Say It with Our Eyes

Eye contact is at an all-time low. Conflict and discomfort, of which there are a lot these days, tempt us to look away and down. Some of our most important conversations are happening via a text – without eye contact. Even in video chats, most people look at their own reflection.

Glasses, especially sunglasses, further limit strong eye contact. Without the best facial and auditory expressions, communication is struggling to be effective, much less satisfying. To solve this, we can:

  • Look up.
  • Look at each other.
  • Say it with our eyes.

Who’s Behind That Mask?

Masks have long been associated with danger. More than 20 million people are assaulted each year by someone often wearing some facsimile of a mask. Whether in operating rooms or on construction sites, the practice of wearing masks signals our vulnerability.

Even though we know that wearing a mask today is helpful, our brain chemistry signals danger: stress rises and the body is flooded with “warning” neural transmitters. And then we get caught in the feedback loop of looking down and talking too fast or too quietly. It’s more important than ever that we indicate we are a friend, not a foe.

To that end:

  • Find a friendly tone of voice.
  • Develop your signature warm wave.
  • Be kind and polite whenever possible. (It’s always possible.)

People are wearing masks for all kinds of reasons. There’s more to protect than our lungs. We need to protect our relationships. Don’t let masks deprive you of your connections with each other. Look into each other’s hearts and souls, past the mask that separates us. We are created to BE here for each other, everywhere and every day.

We’re spending a lot of time worrying about what the future holds. One thing is certain: it’s not likely to be what we imagine. Life is happening now. Every time we meet a friend, or encounter a stranger, we have the opportunity to reinforce that we are not alone and that we matter.

So, smile with your eyes, your hands, and your voice, and maybe we’ll come a little bit closer to healing the world.

What does wearing a mask represent to you, outside of the current pandemic? What have you worn masks for before? How do you enhance your conversations now that half your face is always covered around other people? Please share with our community.

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