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Smiling Voices, Smiling Eyes

A simple trip to the grocery story while wearing a face mask is a lesson in how much we rely on smiles and friendly nods to communicate with others. Our facial expressions send potent non-verbal messages that convey everything from friendly greetings to subtle traffic-directing acknowledgments that keep the flow of carts and people moving without colliding. Facial expressions communicate wordlessly when two people reach simultaneously for the same cooler door, they help us share a quick giggle at a silly situation, or as any Mom knows, send a powerful, but silent “stop that right now” to a misbehaving child.

I live in the south where established custom indicates a slight smile and little head bob extended to strangers is just plain good manners. It’s our way of acknowledging the presence of another human being and extending a touch of the polite courtesy that is so essential to a civil society. Having our faces covered because of Covid-19 removes the most important part of this tool—our smiles.

While eyes and eyebrows play an important role in communication, they only tell half the story. We need the mouth to get the full version. The mouth shows happiness, anger, fear, scorn, sadness or confusion. We learn early on that the non-verbal messages we get from seeing the entire face are a clue to the sincerity and trustworthiness of the words we hear.

There are many ramifications of having one’s face covered such as:

Sarcasm and pithy remarks can be misinterpreted because the listener can’t see the wry smile that says, “I’m joking;”

My son works with a man who is deaf but reads lips very well. With mouths covered, work has become a frustrating experience for both him and his colleagues;

Meeting new people is more challenging because we can’t see and remember the person’s face;

Masks muffle words making it difficult to hear and understand, especially when compounded by six-feet of social distance;

Masks confirm some things we prefer not to think about, for example, if you’ve ever wondered if your breath offends people the day after Pad Thai, there is no longer any doubt;

And sadly, masks have become the new American litter, dropped in parking lots and left in public spaces.

I Can “Hear” the Smile Behind Your Mask

Perhaps we need to practice an established sales training tip, putting a smiIe in our voices by smiling as we speak, even though no one can see our mouths.  Call center operators, fund-raisers, sales professionals and radio broadcasters are all schooled in smiling even though their audiences often can’t see their faces. We can definitely “hear” the smile in the speaker’s voice and we certainly notice when it’s missing. As a bonus in this face mask era where we can see eyes, smiles help give another clue to meaning because they have a way of “lighting up” a speaker’s eyes and making the person seem sincere, kind, and happy.

For the moment, wearing a face mask is essential and while lots of us are frustrated and cranky because we miss our normal lives, perhaps each of us could help lighten the mood by practicing what Leslie Lautenslager, president of Protocol and Diplomacy-International Protocol Officers Association ( said in a recent post. She signed off with having “smiling eyes and smiling voices.” I’m going to work on my technique.