October 1, 2022

In the absence of a smile

Over a decade ago, I penned an article praising the value of a heartfelt joyful smile. To summarize, it spoke to the virtual impossibility of “faking” a real smile.

Back in the 1970s, Dr. Albert Mehrabian studied communication in western societies and concluded (in my opinion) that when communicating emotion of any kind (rather than pure data), 55% is done through body language and facial expression, 38% through tonality, and only 7% through the words actually uttered.

Trust, empathy, and believability are all supported by a truly joyful “Duchenne smile,” according to the article:

The Duchenne smile is characterized by pronounced crow’s-feet alongside the eyes, and elevated cheeks. The muscles involuntarily contract when it is your heart’s mission to put joy on your face. This is very difficult (some claim impossible) to do artificially, which is why photographers always cajole and embarrass you to make you crack up in front of a camera.

Mr. (Guillaume) Duchenne wrote that the basics of a smile were derived from a voluntary contraction of the zygomatic major muscle. This is the muscle that simply raises the corner of your mouth. But beyond that version, the true heartfelt joyful smile also included an  involuntary contraction of the orbicularis oculi muscle, which is responsible for closing the eyelids and producing telltale “crow’s-feet” at the corner of the optical lobe.

Fast forward to 2022.

We’ve been hiding behind masks for much of the past two years. A great deal of Mehrabian’s 55% facial communication has gone underground (under mask!). For those of us over 70, that’s not a particularly high percentage of our lives. We can put that in perspective compared to all the years we’ve actually looked at each others’ mouths! For a five-year-old, though, it’s 40% of their entire life on this planet. And, as behavioral psychologists explain, these formative years are extremely important to the socialization and interactive development of a person.

But what if little Johnny can’t see my Duchenne smile because Dr. Fauci or the child’s mom or my own COVID-19 paranoia has me wearing a mask?

With my life-long experience of reading faces, I can interpret what’s going on behind the mask when the maskee is smiling at me. I might even be able to detect a less-than-genuine smile, in the absence of crow’s-feet.

From Psychology Today, August 26, 2021, by Cara Goodwin, PhD:

Interestingly, not seeing the mouth makes it disproportionately harder to recognize positive emotions and recent research indicates that masks make positive expressions seem less happy, suggesting that children might be less likely to perceive positive emotions in others when they are wearing masks.

Another recent study found that both adults and children (3 to 8 years old) show impaired ability to recognize emotions when others are wearing masks. However, this effect was particularly seen in children aged 3 to 5 years. Difficulty reading facial expressions for preschoolers is particularly impactful since preschool children are typically not yet able to also consider the situation when interpreting emotions, as adults and older children can.

I am aware, now with masks becoming less prevalent, that I am still spending more time looking at eyes more than the whole face when conversing with someone. It’s a skill I didn’t know I wanted; but now that I have it, I am grateful.

I’m not Chicken Little declaring a falling sky; rather, I am acknowledging that young ones may demonstrate a deficit in their ability to read emotion in others.

Rather than negatively assuming that kids will fall behind, though, what if we instead expect them to demonstrate enhanced ability to read what’s needed above the nostrils?

Eyes think it’s worth more study.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.