Before the coronavirus pandemic, I always smiled at other runners as we crossed paths. Now that we’re wearing masks, I rarely bother. And when I do, I have no idea whether the intended recipient even notices.
I never gave much thought to the momentary connections created by exchanging smiles with a stranger before the pandemic. Now I miss them, leading me to wonder: Does it matter whether I offer an unseen smile to someone I don’t know?
The short answer: Yes, because it can affect your emotions as well as theirs. Here are the reasons you should continue smiling behind your mask.
Social contact is important for everyone (including introverts)
Bea de Gelder, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, says that, as social creatures, humans weren’t designed to obscure our facial expressions with cloth coverings. “Social contact,” she says, “is as essential to survival as food and drink.” It’s more than the fact that we rely on others to meet our basic needs in the early and late stages of life, she says. Research shows that social contact improves physical and mental health, increases immunity and reduces stress.
This sense of connection supports our well-being, whether we realize it or not. Michelle “Lani” Shiota, associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, explains: “When we’re smiling and engaging with other people, it’s the engagement with other people that makes us feel better,” adding, “it turns out that that’s even the case if you’re introverted.” She was referring to the work of psychology researcher Luke Smillie, including a 2019 Journal of Experimental Psychology study and a 2017 Emotion study, which found that people — including introverts — tended to experience better moods when acting like extroverts.
Facial expressions are key to social contact
According to Alex Sel, psychology lecturer at the University of Essex, the face is one of the most “important places in the body to look at for social information” — perhaps the most important place.
Shiota says smiling can convey much more than happiness or pleasure. She cites a 2018 PLOS One study that found that living in a geographical area with a high level of ancestral diversity and a history of cultural heterogeneity was a predictor of smiling. According to Shiota, the data suggest we smile to signal that we’re “safe.” Smiles, she says, are “this big, kind of obvious way that we say, ‘Not a threat!’”
Research also shows that when you smile, you tend to view others' facial expressions more positively. Sel performed a study in which subjects were asked to adopt a smile or a neutral expression while rating the happiness level of people in pictures, as electrodes measured their brain activity. Her team found that, based on activity in the visual cortex, people were more likely to perceive neutral faces as positive when they themselves were smiling.
Sel says it’s reasonable to extrapolate that if you stop smiling beneath your mask, you might “perceive other people as less cheerful or less happy.”
But don’t fake it till you make it
Although smiling conveys important social cues, it may not affect our emotional state as strongly as the psychology community was led to believe by a widely cited 1988 study.
The two experiments were designed to test the facial feedback theory, which hypothesizes that the act of smiling, regardless of the feeling underneath it, influences our sense of well-being. Subjects were instructed to view cartoons while either holding a pen between their teeth in a way that approximated a smile or with a pen between their teeth in a position that inhibited smiling. They perceived the cartoons as funnier when their mouths were arranged more like a smile, which seemed to prove the legitimacy of the facial feedback theory.
The findings, however, are now considered controversial within the psychology community, say both Sel and Shiota, because the results have not been widely replicated. Furthermore, a 2019 Psychological Bulletin meta-analysis found that the overall impact of facial feedback on mood, though significant, was small.
A 2019 study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology actually found a strong relationship between insincere smiling and heavy drinking. Researchers looked at workers whose jobs required significant emotional labor — which was defined as “effortfully amplifying, faking, and suppressing emotional expressions,” or “surface acting” — were more likely to engage in heavy drinking and drinking after work.
The eyes truly are the window to the soul
If, like me, you’ve been reluctant to “waste” a masked smile, you should return to smiling as usual. It turns out that humans are really good at reading eyes. “When you encounter someone, if you’re acknowledging them as a human being,” Shiota says, you tend to look them in the eyes and they “will see that smiling in the eyes.”
According to research, we respond “instinctively” to eye contact, Shiota says. The results of an Evolution and Human Behavior study, in which analysis of people’s gaze during a shared meal followed certain patterns, suggest that our eyes evolved to facilitate nonverbal communication. Another study found that oxytocin, also known as “the love hormone,” increases the amount of time people gaze at the eye region of the face.
Still not convinced that your “before times” smile speaks for itself behind a face covering? Try “smizing.” This term, coined by Tyra Banks, refers to smiling with your eyes. Shiota says psychology researcher Paul Ekman originally theorized the Duchenne smile, which shows both in your mouth and eyes, was the only genuine type of smile. Though that theory has since been moderated — Shiota says milder smiles can also be genuine — the more intense your smile, the more likely your eyes are to crinkle at the corners. Enter the smize. To do it, gently squint your eyes while relaxing the rest of your face. (Banks offers a tutorial here.)
But if you’ve never been one to smile (or smize), there’s no need to start now. Gillian Sandstrom, senior psychology lecturer at the University of Essex, says mere eye contact can enhance people’s well-being. She cites a Psychological Science study that examined the effect of receiving eye contact from a stranger. In some cases, eye contact included a smile, while in others it did not. Regardless of whether a stranger smiled at them, people reported feeling less disconnected after engaging in eye contact.
Body language matters
A smile can speak volumes — but so can body language. This is especially relevant for people with autism, for whom masks create a significant barrier to reading other people’s expressions, and for people with hearing impairments who rely on lip-reading, Sel says.
A nod, a wave or a “hello” can also create connection, de Gelder says. But, she says it’s harder to spontaneously engage in friendly gestures without a smile. She explains that the face, voice and body normally “hang together.” In other words, you’re naturally inclined to wave enthusiastically if you’re already smiling. If your expression is neutral, it takes more conscious effort to ramp up your body language.
So smile behind your mask as you wave hello. Not only is your obscured smile still discernible, but it will also help you find the energy for the nod, wave or hello that will seal the sentiment.
Masks shouldn’t keep us from doing “all of the things that you might normally do to acknowledge another person’s humanity when you encounter them,” Shiota says. In light of her advice, I’ve started nodding and smiling at fellow runners as we pass. It could be the endorphins, but I swear I feel better.
Pam Moore is a Boulder-based freelance writer, speaker, marathoner, Ironman triathlete, occupational therapist and certified personal trainer. Visit her at pam-moore.com