Words: Sophie Aubrey, The Age
Photography: Simon Schluter, The Age
He’s been wearing a mask for 30 years. This is what he wants you to know.
How do you express a smile when half of your face is hidden?
It’s a question confronting many Melburnians living in an unfamiliar new masked reality, where the go-to gesture for putting one another at ease suddenly feels so obstructed.
Royal Children’s Hospital general paediatrician Daryl Efron has been wearing masks as part of his job for 30 years and more intensively during the pandemic. The associate professor admits that masks complicate a critical element of communication – “we use a warm, open, relaxed face to show somebody we are calm and attentive” – but he says they don’t hinder as much facial expression as you might think.
“You don’t need the mouth to see a smile. Everyone can see smiling eyes,” Efron says. “You just need to make sure your smile is a big smile so your eyes light up.”
Indeed, not all smiles are equal. There is the social smile – which a mask conceals – and there is the genuine smile, sometimes referred to as the “Duchenne” smile.
“Almost everyone can perform a social smile deliberately. For instance, to offer a polite greeting,” says Dr Amy Dawel, a cognitive and clinical psychologist at ANU.
“Duchenne smiles involve the same mouth action as social smiles, but also include activation of the outer part of the muscle that circles the eye, creating crow’s feet at the corners of the eyes.”
Efron says people can still communicate very effectively while wearing a mask, it just requires a bit more thought.
“Kids in a hospital setting are prone to being a bit scared, sometimes very scared, and people wearing masks can add an extra layer of anxiety for kids, so we need to be very thoughtful doing everything we can to put kids at ease,” Efron says.
He suggests being more deliberate – even extravagant – with facial expressions, body language and gestures. For example, he says slightly raising your eyebrows conveys interest. As does nodding and head tilting when listening.
You have to be more conscious of common courtesies because normally we convey so much with a simple smile.
Associate Professor Daryl Efron, Royal Children’s Hospital general paediatrician
“How you hold your head and body, your gestures with your hands and arms, that’s very important,” he says.
Efron also recommends being more conscious about speaking clearly, loudly and with a friendly voice. Attentive eye contact and laughter are helpful too.
As masks go community-wide, Efron says he has found himself nodding more in public where usually there would have been an exchange of teeth.
“Like when you’re at the checkout of the supermarket, you have to be more conscious of common courtesies because normally we convey so much with a simple smile,” he says.
“From the start of this pandemic we’ve been talking about kindness and now we’re at a level where we need to be more thoughtful with our communication.”
With so much anxiety around us, Dawel says it is critical we still find ways to connect positively with others.
“Eye contact is important for communicating empathy and understanding and warmth,” she says.
“You should still smile when you wave or greet people while wearing a mask. There is another potential benefit too. We know that smiling makes the smiler feel better too.”
Dawel encourages people to nod, wave or say hello to passersby. And when listening to someone speak, note how their voice sounds.
“Vocal tone can sometimes give away more about how a person feels than their face does,” she says.
When meeting someone while masked, Dawel says you can minimise awkwardness by simply acknowledging how odd the situation is.
To make masks feel less confronting, Monash University philosopher of etiquette Dr Elizabeth Coleman believes it helps to liken them to sunglasses.
“We think nothing of somebody wearing sunglasses which essentially masks the eyes and one of the most expressive parts of the face,” Coleman says. “We read a lot of joy or sadness or laughter from the eyes.”
So probably avoid pairing a face mask with sunglasses, Coleman says. She adds that people just need to remember to stay engaged when communicating.
“There are a whole lot of gestures we have … such as tracking people with your eyes, paying attention, it’s what is going to be important in these contexts.”
And if you’re still feeling unsure, spend some time in front of the mirror with a mask on. Dawel says this can help you get a sense of how you came across.
“Try smiling. Nod your head. Move your eyebrows around. Try different gestures. Are you communicating what you want others to see?”