Masking our emotions

2nd August 2020

From the unsubtle tutting of reception staff at the Post Office, to eye rolls from fellow shoppers in the narrow supermarket aisles, I’m sure I am not the only one picking up some uncomfortable tension in my interactions with people in public places lately.

My home county of Devon, usually a convivial hive of activity, has in the last 12 weeks, it seems to me, turned a little less friendly. Misunderstandings, misjudgements and passive aggressiveness seem to be everyday occurrences. This has made me ask myself:

Why are we struggling to communicate effectively at the moment? Can body language help overcome the barriers created by COVID-19?

We are social creatures

Mehrabian (1981) describes how human communication is much more than just the spoken word; in fact our brains have evolved to be amazingly efficient at collecting and interpreting non-verbal signals from others. Tempo, rhythm, facial expressions, body proxemics (body language) and ornaments (clothes and jewellery) are all vital cues that our brains use to fill in the blanks in our conversations.

This ability has served us well so far. Knowing another person’s intentions, thoughts and feelings has been a vital survival tool during our development as a species. This concept has ultimately enabled us to fight, hunt, work and play together unlike any other animal (Cherry, 2020).

Masked emotions

The COVID-19 pandemic and our countermeasures against it are, however, upsetting this finely tuned system of human interaction at a time when we need it most. Our normal methods of ‘encoding’ and ‘decoding’ non-verbal communicative signals are now disrupted. Not only are we forced to keep apart physically, but awkward and intermittent video calls are often the primary method of conversation we have right now. Even when we aren’t physically distanced we must cover our faces, which are the best tool for displaying how we feel.

Facial expressions like a smile, a look of shock or a flash of pain can go totally unnoticed or – worse – be misconstrued as something else when wearing a mask. Body language expert Mark Bowden (2020) highlights how humans have a tendency to default to a negative interpretation of an emotion if the visual stimulus isn’t sufficient to get a clear idea of the other’s intentions.

Add to this the muffling of sound and tone-altering quality of masks, and it becomes easy to see how communication can be rendered ineffective – or even impossible for those with accessibility issues such as deafness.

Workplaces from the retail sector to hospitality are starting to identify this as a problem. In hospitals, for example, staff are finding that deploying their usual kind and empathetic bedside manner is a real challenge when a comforting smile cannot be seen by their frightened patients.

How can we spot body language cues, and what can we do to help?

Eyes: The good news is that even with masks, it is still possible to read emotion in people’s faces. The trick is to pay much more attention to the eyes. The 7 universal micro expressions of fear, surprise, sadness, happiness, anger, disgust and contempt have dead giveaways in the corners of the eyes, but we have to try to be much more deliberate in detecting or ‘decoding’ them in others.

The knowledge of what to look out in other people can also help ourselves when we ‘encode’ or send body language signals. You can help others understand you by being a little over the top and emphasizing your facial expressions under a mask. This helps make it easier for others to detect emotion.

Blocking behaviour: If you see someone putting something like a notebook in front of them or folding their arms, we interpret this as defensive behaviour (Van Edwards, 2020). It’s a natural response to protect the vital organs from a threat. People do this when they are nervous or are confronted with ideas they don’t like. It’s a clear giveaway of a conversation not flowing, so if you pick up on these in an interaction, try building rapport and putting the person at ease.

We can also avoid  blocking behaviours ourselves. Presenting an open torso and sitting upright can help build rapport, as it displays your vulnerability and shows you are not a threat.

Head tilt: A tilt of the head is nature’s way of exposing our ears to a subtle sound to help determine if it is a threat. Ask a friend or family member “Can you hear that?” and watch what they do. In conversation we pick up on this gesture and interpret it as a sign of curiosity or wanting to know more.

We can also use this as a handy trick in conversation for building rapport as it shows you are engaged and interested in what the other person is saying.

Hands: Studies have shown that audiences view speakers who use a wide range of hand gestures more positively than those who don’t. Goman (2020) explains that hidden hands when talking can give off an air of untrustworthiness, as subconsciously we perceive it as a sign of danger. Most of the time this not the case and it’s important not to jump to conclusions. After all the person may just be nervous.

We can ourselves use enthusiastic gestures at waist height to help put the other person at ease. This will keep you grounded, project competence and lighten the cognitive load of the audience. Finger pointing, however, should be used with caution as it can come across as aggressive.

So what next?

Who knows how long COVID-19 will be with us! Whether it’s months, years, or something we have to learn to live with for good, we could certainly all benefit from an increased awareness of how important nonverbal communication is. Remembering that beneath the masks are people like us, experiencing the same mix of emotions as ourselves, can go a long way in helping us to rub alongside each other in the ‘new normal’.


By Sam Brian, CMC Trainee Consultant



Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent Messages. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co.

Mark Bowden. (2020). Covid-19 Masks Effect On Body Language with Communication Expert Mark Bowden. [Online Video]. 17 June 2020. Available from: [Accessed: 3 July 2020].

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Whalen, P. (1998). Masked Presentations of Emotional Facial Expressions Modulate Amygdala Activity without Explicit Knowledge. The Journal of Neuroscience, [Online]. 1, 1. Available at: [Accessed 3 July 2020].

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