How to communicate expressions that masks cover

Wearing a mask in public and during daily situations could be the norm until there is a vaccine for the coronavirus. An expert told WTOP how you can convey messages when facial expressions are partially concealed.

“This may end up being something that becomes more ubiquitous in our society longer term,” Dr. Ryan Sultan, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University in New York, told WTOP’s Dimitri Sotis on Tuesday.

Earlier Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam made wearing facial coverings mandatory inside public spaces.

Sultan said that people communicate around the context of what they are saying, the word being discussed and maybe the tone of voice.

“I don’t think a lot of us think as much about how much our facial expressions make a difference,” Sultan said.

With masks covering the lower 50 to 60% of faces, where a lot of expressions are being generated, “I think that you can’t communicate in that way,” he said.

You also can’t get physically close to people on the street, since many are trying to maintain social distancing.

Add to that a sense of tension and suspicion and worry that a person near you may be infectious and you could get sick, communication becomes even more challenging.

Sultan said it’s harder to speak to people, and there must be a way to better connect when keeping distance and our faces covered.

“One of the things that I’ve done, specially, in scenarios where I’m encountering another person — it’s clear that we have made eye contact, that even though we don’t know each other, we’re aware of each other — is I try to nod at people. I give them a thumbs up. I wave,” Sultan said.

He said it’s important that the person he is communicating with realize that he’s aware of them and he is keeping his distance so the person does not have to feel uncomfortable or tense.

But Sultan also thinks it’s a way to socially connect with people.

“We’re all feeling very isolated. The only people we interact with in person, for most of us, is the people that we’re living with; and this is a way to remind each other that we’re all in this together, that we’re all struggling through this,” Sultan said.

Sultan encourages those types of expression.

“I think that that’s good for all of us .. and that absolutely making those attempts are excellent.”


More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.


WTOP’s Dimitri Sotis contributed to this report.

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