Before the advent of COVID-19, I could count on one hand the number of times that I’d worn a face-mask and they all involved me sanding some kind of wood during Wood-Work class in high school. The pandemic has forced all of us to become well acquainted with wearing a face-mask and, if legislation in my country is anything to go by, our use of face-masks is only going to increase. On the 15th of June, face-masks became mandatory on public transport throughout England, and on the 24th of June, they will also be mandatory in shops and supermarkets. Additionally, many other public services across England, such as doctor’s surgeries, have made face-masks compulsory for the people using their services. Whilst other countries around the world may have slightly different legislation and guidance in place regarding the wearing of face-masks, it’s fair to say that most of us have to prepare for life in a world where one of the most expressive features of our faces, our mouths, are hidden from view.
I recently wrote about the rare moments of joy I’ve experienced through smiling at strangers (from a socially acceptable distance) during this pandemic. In that article, I championed the power of the humble smile to create a bridge that connects one human to another. What with the increasing prevalence of face-mask wearing, I have been asking my self recently what can I do to create that same connection with other people without having a smile at my disposal?
The emotion in our eyes
Earlier I referred to the mouth as being one of the most expressive parts of the face, whilst this is a personal opinion, it was also the conclusion that was reached in a recent study conducted by the Department of Psychology at Bielefeld University in Germany. The study aimed to discern how different parts of the face contribute to emotional recognition. The authors used a technique called “fine-grained masking” on pictures of faces that represented different emotions, which involved the faces being covered by a 6x8 grid of white tiles, which were removed at one-second intervals to reveal different parts of the face until a participant of the study clicked a stop button when they felt they could ascertain the emotion that the face was showing. Ninety-four participants took part in the study and the results lead the authors to conclude that two facial features in particular stood out when it came to their ability to convey emotion to other people; the mouth, as I’ve already mentioned, and our eyes. The authors said in their conclusion:
“the eyes and the mouth region emerge as the overall most diagnostic areas […] Overall, the present study confirms the high importance of the eye and also the mouth region for successfully recognizing expressions of emotion”
The good news for those of us facing a future in which face-mask wearing increasingly becomes the norm, is that (to state the obvious) face-masks don’t cover our eyes. We can take heart from knowing that one of the two most expressive parts of our faces is still available to us when we are interacting with other people. But how exactly can we use our eyes alone to forge connections with other people?
Using eye-contact to connect with others
In the early stages of England’s lock-down, I took my sister to the doctor’s surgery for a blood test that her psychiatrist had asked for before she started a new medication. The phlebotomy nurse who saw us was wearing a face-mask and, as was required, so were me and my sister.
As soon as me and my sister sat down in the nurse’s treatment room, it was apparent that she was in a bit of a rush, she hadn’t so much as looked in our direction as she ushered us in, let alone made eye-contact with either me or my sister before she came to draw blood from my sister’s arm. It was at this point that my sister decided to pull her face-mask off and let out a giggle (a Learning Disability can manifest itself in strange ways), the nurse froze for a second and asked her to put it back on, I encouraged her also. The nurse turned and looked in my direction for the first time, but she still didn’t make eye-contact with me, it was as if she was looking over my shoulder. A wave of confusion came over me — I didn’t know how to read her.
Was she frustrated with my sister, or perhaps annoyed at me as her Caregiver? Or, maybe she was understanding of my sister’s behavior and the Learning Disability that caused it? Maybe she was feeling sympathy for me as her Caregiver?
A whole lot of maybes, because I just couldn't read her. And because I couldn’t interpret how she felt about me or my sister, I couldn’t connect with her. The reason for all of this? Her two most expressive facial features were out of action. Her mouth was, understandably, covered, but her eyes had been absent from our interaction too.
Several weeks later I had a very different experience when I encountered another face-mask wearing health professional. This time it was a psychiatrist who had came to see me and my sister to assess whether or not she needed to have an inpatient stay at a hospital, due to a mental-health crisis that she’d been going through — it’s beyond the scope of this article to describe the exact nature of this crisis, but needless to say I was in an anxious state of my mind when this psychiatrist arrived to talk to us.
I needn’t have been so worried, the psychiatrist immediately put me at ease as he sat down opposite us. It wasn’t anything he said, he simply looked straight at us, eye to eye. It wasn’t a blank stare he offered us, there was emotion in his eyes. His eyes told me he cared about helping my sister. As he talked to us, sensitively asking my sister questions and carefully listening to her responses, his eyes continued to convey this sense of emotion. The whole time he was with us I felt like he wanted to be in that room with me and my sister, trying to understand us, trying to help us and, most importantly of all, trying to connect with us. All because of the contact between his eyes and ours.
In the weeks since this meeting with the psychiatrist, I have endeavored to try and be more mindful of how I use my eyes when I’m wearing a face-mask and interacting with other people. I’ve taken some inspiration in my efforts from a passage in the Christian Bible in which Jesus advises people to be mindful of what they convey to other people through their eyes:
The eye is the lamp of the body. You draw light into your body through your eyes, and light shines out to the world through your eyes. So if your eye is well and shows you what is true, then your whole body will be filled with light. But if your eye is clouded or evil, then your body will be filled with evil and dark clouds. Matthew 6: (22–24)
Whether you’re a Christian or not, I think that Jesus’ words here could help us all in our efforts to connect with each other in a face-mask wearing world. Jesus reminds us of our eyes’ ability to convey a message to other people from deep inside us, which is important because it means eye-contact on its own is not enough when we are trying to connect with one another. We need to ensure that the intentions behind our eyes are full of “light” and not “clouded or evil” if we want other people to be open to receiving the eye-contact that we offer them. If you can manage to foster a sense of positivity towards other people deep in your heart you will be doing your bit to ensure “light shines out to the world through your eyes” and you will put yourself in the perfect position to connect with other people, just like the psychiatrist did who visited me and my sister.
A moment of connection
Yesterday I was queuing to buy a bus ticket and wearing my face-mask as required. I noticed the bus driver looking down as he spoke to the customers in front of me, avoiding eye-contact at all costs. He didn’t seem happy, but I couldn’t quite tell, maybe he was distracted?
As I awaited my turn to purchase a ticket, I tried to ignite that light within me which only our eyes can channel. I thought about the bus driver, the struggles he might be facing in a repetitive job which would present him with more than the occasional irate customer (the bus-goers around here can be a grumpy lot). And I considered how it might feel for him to have the ever-present anxiety of this pandemic hanging over him in his customer-facing role.
As I thought about these things a sense of empathy grew within me and I felt compelled to offer this bus driver something — a ray of light perhaps?
As I bought my ticket, I looked at the bus driver, his eyes were still averted, but as he waited for my ticket to print, he slowly lifted his eyes and they met mine — did he feel the energy I was trying to put out? Did he sense the ray of light I was shining in his direction? — there was a brief moment we shared, in which I felt a connection. There was some movement on his face, under that pesky mask, I’m not certain, but I think it could have been a smile.
Next time you’re faced with a moment of mask-to-mask contact, don’t forget that you’re eyes are still at your disposal. The possibility of connecting with other people is one thing that this pandemic will never take from us, in fact, now more than ever we need to let one another know that we’re here for each other. So, cultivate the light with you and let your eyes shine forth — maybe one day, I’ll be fortunate enough to meet your gaze.
Thanks For Reading,