Facing the many faces of face masks

It’s fascinating how one item – like a face mask – can affect so many things. And we don’t even know all the effects yet.

There are wider and narrower questions revolving around masks such as:

How face masks alter our behavior, and our interactions with each other?


How well does the facial recognition work with the masks?


Due to the use of face masks, the sales of lipstick has fallen while eye makeup sales has risen 1-3 but what about the consumption of other products and services? For instance, do people smoke, eat or drink less in public transport now when it’s more difficult with the mask regulations, and do people visit more often dermatologist due to maskne?


And how does the use of masks affect the development of babies and kids?

“Hanging in there with a distance”. Even hammocks start looking like face masks.

United masks users

A face mask has become a universal wearable object. People dress differently depending on the climate, culture, personalities and trends but now many of us wear at least one common ‘accessory’: a face mask. Covering large part of the face, it can make our appearances more equal and maybe even less significant in public spaces.

Imagine this scene:
It’s a dark winter evening and you see someone with a beanie stopping in front of a shop. He quickly takes a mask from his pocket, pulls it on his face and enters the shop. What is happening?

Before 2020, many of us might have guessed that the person was going to rob the shop, while now most of us would most likely think that he is just regularly going to shopping, wearing a face mask like a decent citizen.

We communicate with our faces – especially with our mouths

It can be hard to recognize people with the masks on. Especially, when there are also hats, glasses and scarves covering the face. We can’t see if the masked person is smiling at us and appears friendly, and others can’t see our facial expressions either.

Humans tend to process faces as a whole, rather than focusing on individual features, explains psychologist Rebecca Brewer studying the role of facial expressions4, saying “When we cannot see the whole face, such holistic processing is disrupted.”

A study made in the Bielefeld University, on how face parts contribute to successful emotion recognition5, showed the high importance of the eye and mouth region for successfully recognizing expressions of emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger and surprise.

We may have a long way to go with masks.

Even without masks, we don’t always get our messages through right but with masks the likelihood of misunderstandings increases. And even if we use many ways and body parts for expressing ourselves, still as a cognitive neuroscience researcher Christian Wallraven6 says: “the greatest source of non-verbal information comes from our mouths.”

On the other hand, Aleix Martinez, a professor who is also researching facial expressions, points out that “as long as you have access to other cues, you’re pretty much safe. The fact that [..] you have your face covered should not prevent others from understanding what you’re trying to express non-verbally.”4

Still, I’ve noticed how much harder it is – as a person learning Swiss German – to understand what someone is saying when I can’t see the lip movements. The mask also dampens the sound so it’s harder to hear.

There could be a demand for smart masks that would translate languages or make the sound clearer, slower and louder. And while we are at it, maybe the mask could also convert our words into wiser and kinder, make our singing voice sound like professional singers – or at least emit our favorite scents or something that keeps our teeth healthier.

Masks affect little ones too

As a lot of information is communicated visually, masks can cause kids to have difficulties with recognizing people, issues with social interaction as well as emotional and speech recognition, says professor Lee Kang at the University of Toronto, according to the NY Times article7. He adds that children also adapt quickly and teachers can use various means to help learning when they are wearing masks. A professor of psychology Lisa Scott advises to implement the use of transparent face masks for caregivers and teachers of young children.8

6 to 8 months old babies look at that person’s mouth when trying to master their own native speech, getting not only auditory cues but visual too, explains Dr. David Lewkowicz who has studied lip-reading in babies. “Babies whose caretakers are masked will miss some of these visual cues, and it’s possible that young children may have some trouble sorting out who goes with which voice. On the other hand, the time children spend at home with people who are not masked will give them a chance to practice picking up the visual cues.”7

It seems that “Face time” has got a new meaning: spending time without mask with kids so that they can see the mouth movements.

Small group gatherings

The mask task goes on

Face masks won’t be disappearing off the face of the earth any time soon but we shouldn’t let them wipe the smile off our faces, but instead come face to face with all kinds of positive sides of the face masks!

10+1 extra benefits of face masks

  1. You can express your personality, opinions and style with a mask.
  2. You can avoid smelling some not-so-nice scents.
  3. You may be protected from some harms of the sun and pollution too.
  4. You learn to articulate more clearly with a mask.
  5. You learn to express yourself better with your eyes, eyebrows and other parts of your body.
  6. You can hide your emotional state (or some part of your face) more easily if you want.
  7. You can have any expression under the mask. You can for example grin without others noticing.
  8. If you used makeup before, now you don’t have to put it on the area covered by the mask. Or if you are a man, maybe you save some shaving time and equipment.
  9. The mask can warm you in cold weather.
  10. You can blame the mask if someone can’t understand you, for example if you are learning a new language (it’s not your language skills or accent, it’s the mask!).

+ You can also make yourself and others smile behind masks by wearing a mask with a nice print on it. Fore example here are some Abroadland’s animal prints on masks:

ABROADLAND MASK PRINTS

40% of the profits of all Abroadland’s animal-themed print products bought in January 2021 are donated to WWF.


References

1 In a Mask Moment, Makeup Companies Look to the Eyes. Lipstick sales fall as use of masks surges.
Los Angeles Business Journal. Diane Haithman. July 6, 2020

2 In 2020, Eye Shadow Sales Are Soaring
Allure. Mary Retta. October 21, 2020

3 Masks may be causing a blow to lipstick sales, but eye makeup sales are booming as Americans find creative ways to use cosmetics
Business Insider. Bethany Biron. August 11, 2020

4 How face masks affect our communication
BBC Future. Sandy Ong. June 9, 2020

5 Mapping the emotional face. How individual face parts contribute to successful emotion recognition
Wegrzyn, Vogt, Kireclioglu, Schneider, Kissle. May 11, 2017

6 Look into my eyes: Communication in the era of face masks.
Deutsche Welle (DW). Gaby Reucher. May 22, 2020

7 Do Masks Impede Children’s Development?
The New York Times. Perri Klass, M.D. September 14, 2020

8 Psychologist Calls For Clear Masks For Caregivers To Aid Child Development. Infants And Young Children Rely On Mouths For Language Development, Masks Could Delay Learning
Wisconsin Public Radio. Mary Kate McCoy. July 2, 2020



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