'It's harder to read each other': How face masks and social distancing can impact relationships

We ask a human behaviour expert about all the social cues we might be missing

Cashier returning credit card at the cash register to woman with wallet wearing protective face mask and gloves to prevent viruses
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You’re in the supermarket, navigating your way through the aisles, trying not to get too close to anyone and you give the stranger next to you a quick, reassuring smile. Then you remember they can’t see your smile – because you’re wearing a face mask.

Do they know you tried? Did your eyes give it away? It’s hard to tell what kind of social cues we might be missing as we get used to a new way of living.

“Social cues are one form of communication that enhance our relationships and interactions with others,” explains human behaviour expert Patrick Wanis, PhD. “[These] include our facial expression, body language, the volume and the tonality of the voice, and personal space.”

It is much more difficult for us to effectively communicate, understand and interact with each other, not only because we’re wearing face masks, but also because we need to be about two metres apart at all times amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The fact that we have to keep a distance from each other automatically makes it harder for us to read each other, and by increasing this personal space and distance between us, we do not feel closer or more connected; the physical gap starts to feel like a relational gap,” Wanis explains. This makes us more closed off in our body language, and therefore less expressive in our communication, he adds.

Then there’s the issue of the face mask affecting our voice tone and volume, as it muffles sound. “We lose awareness of how loud or how soft we are speaking because the mask also affects the way that the sound vibrates in our body, which makes it harder for us to determine our tone and level of voice.”

When interacting with other people, be more patient

It’s also much harder to determine facial expressions and empathise, he adds. “Your ability to sense your friend’s sadness is due to mirror neurons, which mirror within you the act or feeling that the other person is experiencing. And the reason you can mirror that feeling is because you can read it in their facial expressions.” When half your face is covered, that’s infinitely more difficult to do.

“We can’t tell if a person is truly smiling or faking a smile when their mouth is covered. And only a highly skilled person would be able to read someone else’s emotions and social cues purely from their eyes.”

While there are a range of transparent face masks available on the market, making it easier to detect smiles and other expressions, there is still a disadvantage to sound quality and, when there’s a large physical gap between us, interacting can be problematic.

Senior couple buying with face mask at store
Relationships with people we know and strangers will be affected. Getty

Wanis believes that, because of all these factors, everyday interactions with people we know will be negatively impacted. “It lowers the quality of our interaction and ability to fully relate to each other,” he says. “It becomes even more difficult to interact with strangers since we have no history or understanding of their personality, temperaments or general characteristics.”

So how can we best navigate this brave new world? “In order to be as expressive as before, you need to increase the level of your expression,” Wanis advises.

Human behaviour expert Patrick Wanis
Human behaviour expert Patrick Wanis

You might need to do this for some time, he adds, or at least until we have a cure or vaccine for Covid-19. Even after, he believes the majority of people may continue to wear face masks and keep their distance out of habit or fear.

"It's important to remember that we're all experiencing similar emotions such as uncertainty, fear, anxiety, hopelessness, sadness, loneliness, loss, powerlessness or even meaninglessness. We're all experiencing these emotions but at different levels and different moments.

"Therefore, when interacting with other people, be more patient. Before making a hasty conclusion about what the other person is thinking or feeling or trying to communicate, ask more questions and listen more attentively and repeat to the person what you believe you've understood," says Wanis.