You Can Still Smile, Even Wearing a Mask

I’ve seen many people in the Mental Health Advocacy arena talking about this new reality of people wearing masks in public places. The main concern seems to be losing something that is small, but can be invaluable, the connection that comes from smiling at someone in public.

Now, I don’t want to dispute the importance of that. I know there have been many, many cases of people struggling, even to the point of despair, brought out of it, even if just for a moment, when someone made eye contact with them and smiled. It’s a small, but powerful, reminder that you are one of us, a human being, and that you are, to borrow a term from elsewhere, “seen”.

Now, of course, as we go into a grocery store, or pick up a coffee from the drive through, or even pass neighbors walking down the street, we may find ourselves wearing masks, and our little smiles will go unnoticed. That’s not good. I agree with that.

But, we are not incapable of letting people know they are “seen”.

I want to talk a bit about what happens when we smile, like really smile. Not the half-hearted smirk most of us give people. (Yes, I am 100% guilty)

When you really smile, your eyes raise and widen. Your voice raises, in tone and volume. When you make eye contact, your head raises, and your posture changes as well. Some of us may even gesture differently when we are smiling, and walk a bit more briskly.

None of these things are impacted by wearing a mask, we are all still capable of doing them, and by smiling underneath our masks, we will end up doing these things without thought. They are part of our body language, and part of the subconscious messages we send to one another. As we move forward out of quarantine, but into a world where many people we encounter are wearing masks for safety, we’ll figure this out. We’ll adjust to not seeing someone’s mouth, but looking at their eyes and other hints of body language in order to communicate. The human race is nothing if not adaptable.

I’m reminded of something I wrote about doing online presentations way back when all of this started. When thinking about people using web conferencing tools there was a question of how to “present” when there’s a slide or some other visual aid on screen, and no one can see you:

It’s tempting to think that no one can see you, no sense in gesturing.


Gesture anyway. When you are not on screen, and something else is, the only tool left in your toolbox for effective communication is your voice. When you gesture, your voice naturally follows. Make a grand sweeping gesture, you voice changes pitch and speed to match it. Smile, your voice will raise slightly to match that.

You gesture even when no one can see it, because of the way it changes your voice and the subtle messages that sends. You smile, even when no one can see it because it changes the way you look and speak, and sends similar subtle messages. A smile is but one tool in our toolbox for letting someone else know that we “see” them. The eye contact we make while smiling, literally, “sees” them. A nod, a “hello”, or even a wave from a distance, can do wonders too. We should forget that and simply give up on being kind to people we come across.

Of course, all of this also means getting used to being around each other again too. I understand, and share, the feelings of anxiety that can be ever-present when we are forced to be around other people in public right now as well. I’m hoping that will come, and the more we can manage to get back to acknowledging each other the more we can still “see” each other and have those little connections that are so important.

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  1. Thanks for writing this article. Not being able to see (and exchange friendly) facial expressions made me so sad when I went to the grocery store. I hadn’t been out in a public place in weeks and was already nervous. I smiled hard at the grocery store clerk and was wondering if he could tell that I was smiling with only my eyes being visible.

    1. It would show in your eyes, but whether the clerk noticed or not is a question. It’s going to take time to get used to looking for the more subtle clues, but good on you for smiling anyway!

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