Smiling From Behind Your Mask

In the past week or so of the mandatory wearing of masks, I have heard a range of concerns from young people and adults in the community – some about comfort and breathability, some about their capacity to work wearing a mask (which seems to be worse for the vision impaired, who constantly have to deal with lens fogging) and some to do with the dehumanising nature of the mask itself.

We forget how much we understand of the people around us through their facial expressions – and that all of this social knowledge and social understanding is hidden beneath the mask.

Words count for as little as 7% of communication – and while the tone of our voice (muffled currently but evident) counts for a third, more than half of how we express ourselves is through facial expression and body language – so how much of this is compromised by the wearing of masks?

I began to notice this sense of disconnect walking my dog in the mornings… the nod and smile I used to give to my fellow walkers braving the cold so early was lost in a sea of unreadable faces.  Everything looked less friendly and less familiar.

This wasn’t an enjoyable feeling – so I figured I need to make a change somewhere. I may not be able to change the mandate around masks (which has now been extended to regional Victoria as well), and nor might I want to given that it is keeping us collectively more safe and well – but I can change how I react to them.

The first change I decided to make was in my perception.  Although the mask is strange and alien, I decided to assume that underneath it – everyone I pass is smiling at me.  I can assume that like me, they miss those random feel-good moments of smiling at a stranger in the street, or at a worker in a grocery store – or even at my students when they arrive in the morning.  We each have the power to  change our thinking and re-wire our reactions to a more hopeful one, rather than thinking the negative. I decided to take advantage of this.

Secondly, I realised I could change my behaviour and see if people join me.  While I enjoyed my nods and smiles at passers by pre-Covid19, if I wanted that connection now, I would have to go the extra step.  I would need to actually speak to people on the street.

I have been trying this over the last few days and it is amazing the sense of friendly community that still exists if we are all willing to just put ourselves out there a little bit more.  Now I say hello instead of just smiling at the people walking past me.  And you know what – I almost sense a relief when I do.  Maybe this small act is making their strange new world a little bit friendlier too.  Also, I decided I should actively try to engage in the small talk I usually avoid. I chat to the young person on the checkout at the supermarket, and the person standing two metres away from me as I wait for coffee with my dog. We are all crying out for those tiny moments to connect – to feel normal in a world that is anything but.  And I find that, the more I step out and knock on the doors of connection, the more those doors open up to me as well.

You will be surprised how quickly the world seems more familiar when you make a few simple changes.  Try it and see.  Take the extra step, put yourself out there and you will be rewarded.