The importance of connecting with your co-workers has been well documented. Not only does it lead to higher job satisfaction and employee retention, but it can also improve mental health and self-confidence. If you’re working in person, you’ve probably noticed how different being around your co-workers feels these days. We are all feeling a little more awkward than we used to, but there’s a good reason for that.

We’re programmed to seek and read the faces of those we interact with. Even infants observe facial expressions, learning to mimic and understand the feelings of others by the shape of the eyes and mouths of their caregivers. Studies have shown that infants spend more time looking at smiling faces than those which aren’t smiling, and the call and response of human interaction shapes the way we view others as well as the way we view ourselves. But what happens when half of our face, and the faces of those we’re speaking with, is blocked by a mask?

According to a recent study by Claus-Christian Carbon, covering the lower half of the face inhibited the ability to accurately read emotions such as disgust and happiness. Also interesting was the fact that, even when subjects correctly guessed the emotions of the mask-wearer, subjects did not have confidence that their guesses were correct.

4 Ways to Give and Receive Context Clues with a Mask

Mask wearing has become part of the new normal. While masks may make it difficult to read feelings solely based on facial expressions, the author of this study suggests several ways that we can both observe and give context clues to improve communication with others.

1. Exaggerate Facial Expressions

If you’ve ever seen a mime perform, you know how easily they can convey emotions such as happiness, confusion, and sadness without saying a word. Not that you need to act (or look like!) a clown, but taking the time to make sure your smile reaches your eyes can help others better understand where you’re coming from. You can express other emotions with a furrowed brow, wide-open eyes, or a frown. It will probably feel weird at first, but practicing can make it feel a bit more normal.

2. Pay Attention to Body Language

There’s more to expressing ourselves than our facial expressions. Body language such as head position, proximity between speakers, and even the way we hold our feet can convey language. You don’t need to become an expert in body language to read your conversational partner, but you may rely more on these clues when the face is obscured by a mask.

3. Learn Other Context Clues

What’s the context of the conversation? Who started the conversation? Answering these questions and listening to the tone of the other person’s voice can give you important clues about how your conversational partner might be feeling.

4. Use Your Words

It can be uncomfortable to verbalize your feelings and thoughts. But sometimes expressing them verbally can help improve communication, especially if other clues are going unnoticed. And if you’re not sure what the person you’re speaking with is thinking, it doesn’t hurt to ask. It’s better to ask than assume, especially when your ability to read other people is partially blocked by a mask.

Adapting Communication Takes Work

COVID-19 is our current reality, and work life must adjust accordingly. The importance of connecting with co-workers hasn’t changed, but the way we make those connections might need some adapting to fit into the context we find ourselves in. Like most changes, it will probably be a bit uncomfortable at first, but with practice it will become more natural to use communication tools other than simply relying on facial expressions.

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Brynn Mahnke is a freelance writer specializing in creating articles while the rest of the world is sleeping. In her real life she is a small business owner, a mother of seven and a mediocre distance runner who enjoys collecting obscure facts about anything. Get in touch with her at brynn.mahnke@gmail.com.