What lies beneath the mask? It’s often impossible to tell
The eyes – or so the saying goes – are a window into the soul. Well, perhaps they are. But it clearly takes a better woman (or man) than me to look into someone’s eyes and gaze right into their soul. As far as I am concerned, I can barely even discern anyone’s expression or mood by merely looking at their eyes.
And these days, with mask-wearing having become compulsory, that is all that you can see of anyone: their eyes. I have to confess that I find this rather disconcerting. Without being able to see someone’s mouth – whether it is turned up cheerily or downcast glumly – it is hard to tell whether someone is happy or not. Never has the expression ‘smiling eyes’ seemed more inappropriate when the truth is that you really can’t tell by someone’s eyes alone if they are smiling or not.
It turns out that all the visual clues that we rely upon during our social interactions depend less on the eyes, and more on the rest of the face. Is your nose crinkling up in disgust? Are your lips tightening with exasperation? Or have they risen ever so slightly in a sneer? Is your jaw relaxed or clenched with anger? It is all these non-verbal clues that we pick up on as we negotiate our way through the world.
But now that everyone we meet – except for the people in our own household – is masked, how on earth can we tell what they are feeling? And, equally importantly, how can they tell whether we are smiling or scowling underneath our masks?
Short answer to both questions is: no, we can’t. And that makes every social interaction that much trickier.
But the adaptable beings that we are, we have learnt our lessons from months of mask wearing and are now cued up with non-facial clues as we make our way through the world. I noticed this first when I went grocery shopping in my neighbourhood market. As I stopped and stepped aside on the pavement when I saw a man approaching from the opposite direction, he came to a halt and indicated with a sweeping gesture that I should pass first. I smiled my thanks before I realized that he couldn’t see that. So, as I passed him, I said ‘Thanks’ with a small bow that would have done a Japanese person proud.
For me, though, masks present another problem. I am ever so slightly deaf and over the years have developed the ability to lip read, which fills in the gaps that my hearing leaves. But now, with everyone’s lips masked, there is no way to glean that additional information. And it doesn’t help that masks end up muffling people’s voices even more. So, conversations have become more difficult to conduct, especially with people who are soft-spoken to begin with. Imagine my relief, then, when on my visit to my doctor, I saw him wearing a transparent face shield rather than a mask. Suddenly, I could understand every word he was saying. And, for a few minutes, I could feel like my old self.
It was on that hospital visit, though, that I realized that there are three kinds of mask wearers. The first group, in which I include myself, are those that put on their masks and leave them in place for the entire duration of the time they are outside. Then, there are those who seem to think that it’s fine to pull them down ever so often, sometimes to talk to their companion, at other times to have a sip of water, and so on. And then, there are those who seem to think that infections only enter through the mouth, so they can leave their noses bare, no problem at all. I find myself sorely tempted to tell them off, but then I think I am probably better off maintaining social distancing from morons like these.
Maybe as mask-wearing becomes a part of our lives – until they find a vaccine that all of us can take – people will become a little more aware of how best to use masks. And at the very least, they will stop touching the outside of their masks every few minutes to adjust it. I get particularly concerned when I see TV reporters doing this, because they are in a situation where there is a clear and present danger of contracting Covid 19. “Stop doing that!” I find myself yelling at the TV, like a batty old lady who can’t tell that the people on the other side of the screen can’t hear her.
It’s not all bad news, though. Wearing a mask means that I no longer need to bother with lipstick – which is a relief because I don’t know when I can next replenish my stock. On the flip side, my use of eyeliner and mascara – which I hardly ever used – has gone up exponentially!
So, while the eyes may not be a window to the soul, they are certainly proving to be key to my appearance. And even if you can’t tell, I am smiling with them as well.