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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

What It Means to Lose Our Smiles When We Need Them Most

Masks are the most effective weapon we have right now in our battle against the coronavirus.

Wearing a mask does take getting used to, and they are changing the way we connect with each other.

But people are finding ways to enhance our masked communication.

Everyone at the Haymaker farmer’s market in Kent is wearing a mask.

Afterall, they are required. 

Some were purchased at the Socially Responsible Sweatshop booth, a sustainability collective founded by Mary Ann Kasper.

She's a gregarious person, but she's not much for small talk with customers nowadays.

“I don’t hear much of what people say because there’s this muffled voice coming at me from a distance,” said Kasper.

She’s not hard of hearing, it’s just harder to hear. 

photo of matt with and without mask
Matt Herbruck of Birdsong Farm says wearing a mask is like wearing a seatbelt. It's a necessary safety measure that's quickly becomes second nature.

Still, she's finding ways to get her meaning across.

“I try to just use my eyes because they can’t see my mouth and I don’t want them to think I’m grumpy or whatever.”

Organic farmer Matt Herbruck is also working on his non-verbal communication skills.

“You can’t see facial expressions, so you read eyes a lot more," he said, "body language, head shaking, things like that."

And speaking clearly is a must, “I try to enunciate more, which I struggle with sometimes because I speak quickly,” he rattled off.

Six tips for effective masked communication
These are among the communication tools we all need to embrace in the age of coronavirus, according to Julia Jones Huyck, director of the speech pathology and audiology program at Kent State University.

In fact, she’s compiled a list of recommendations.

  • Maintain eye contact.  (Really look at people when you talk to them.)
  • Signal your intentions.  (Get someone’s attention by saying their name or gesturing to them.)
  • Don’t yell.  (It's a form of speech distortion.)
  • Try to avoid noisy environments.
  • Practice communication repairs.  (Rephrase what you said when something was missed, and if you’re the one who missed the information, be really specific about what was missed.)
  • Most of all, be patient with each other.

Visual hearing
It’s not just the muffled sound of the masked voice that makes it hard to communicate.

"The loss of smiles is not a minor loss, it's actually a very substantial loss."

We’re missing the visual component, according to Merri Rosen, director of the hearing research group at NEOMED.

“We’re all doing a little bit of lip reading all the time,” she said.

And beyond lip-reading, Rosen says the hearing and visual regions of our brain are intertwined in a part of the brain called the superior temporal sulcus that plays a role in recognizing facial expressions.

“So there’s a strong connection between the emotional areas of the brain and the auditory areas of the brain,” said Rosen.

And with masks, all those crucial emotional cues are missing, especially the smile.

Mourning the loss of our smiles
Psychologist Karin Coifman studies human emotion at Kent State.

She say the smile is at the bedrock of all human connection.

“We use smiles for all kinds of really essential human tasks that involve interactions with other people,” said Coifman.

photo of karin coifman
Psychologist Karin Coifman studies human emotion and facial perception at Kent State University.

A welcoming smile to a stranger, a shy smile, a coy smile, a consoling smile, a smirk:  the list is endless.

“These are all really subtle signals that operate constantly in interpersonal communication,” she said, and all unfortunately lost when we cover the bottom of our face.

But Coifman says we are adapting, mostly by using our eyes to replace the light of a smile, “and that crinkly of the eye is a big part of intense expressions of happiness.”  It's called 'smizing'.

Still, she thinks it’s important to acknowledge the sacrifice we are making to protect each other’s health in these trying times.

“Our smiles are gone at a time when we need them most,” she said.

Trying harder in trying times
Let's be clear. The loss of smiles does not outweigh the benefits of wearing a mask.

Most health experts now say that the current death toll would be much lower if Americans had begun wearing masks when the pandemic began.

Some people have taken to wearing masks with transparent shields, but they tend to fog up, defeating the purpose.

Meanwhile, Julia Jones Huyck is taking the long view of the communication skills we’re building in our masked reality.

She said, “maybe we can all take something away from this and be better at communication when we’re done.”

It can't happen soon enough.

Jeff is your average chemist turned radio host and reporter. He currently hosts middays on WKSU and has reported extensively on science, politics, business, and the environment.