VIU professors examine social impacts of wearing masks

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People have been forced to adapt to the use of different strategies and social cues to communicate clearly in the time of face coverings, according to two Vancouver Island University (VIU) professors.

“We as humans are born communicators, but we usually look at the whole face. The brain prefers to see wholes and now we often see half of a face,” said Dr. Lindsay McCunn, psychology professor at VIU. “It’s not as efficient for the brain when it’s interpreting what is being said.”

McCunn said wearing masks forces people to be more aware of other cues during conversation. “We use our eyes a lot more. The eyes are a secondary way to understand what someone means and what their facial expression is telling us,” she said. “We are noticing gestures being made and we can compensate when we wear a mask by using our hands and arms to get what we want to say across.”

More than 75 per cent of communication is non-verbal — most of that is through facial expressions, according to Maureen O’Connor, nursing professor at VIU. She said it is estimated humans can interpret more than 250,000 facial expressions and face coverings limit expression.

People who are visual listeners tend to use eye contact more and those who comprehend primarily by listening often look away from speakers to focus, according to O’Connor. She said it is important to note eye contact is considered disrespectful in some cultures and lack of eye contact does not mean a person is not paying attention.

O’Connor said difficulty hearing and understanding conversations can make people feel excluded, socially isolated and can lead to depression. 

She teaches communication in nursing and offers tips to communicate more clearly with face coverings, including facing and addressing the person you are speaking to; speaking slowly and clearly; not yelling; keeping volume consistent; being present in conversations and being patient.

Masks can also pose challenges for the elderly and other people with sensory deficits, O’Connor said.“Many people with hearing challenges rely on lip reading and facial expressions to correctly understand what is being said and with a mask this isn’t possible.”

Individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder or other sensory or anxiety-based disorders may find wearing a mask difficult and may feel they need to explain themselves to combat the judgments of others, according to McCunn. She said they may constantly feel the cloth on their skin and may be unable to take their attention away from it.

McCunn specializes in environmental psychology and said the way people interact with their environment has fundamentally changed since the start of the pandemic.

“It can feel more difficult to accomplish simple goals, such as grabbing a coffee at a local store, without having to adjust normal behaviour. I find that to be very interesting as a psychologist because some people could perceive that there has been environmental and personal control taken away from them during this time,” she said.

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