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The value of a Smile

It’s hard to breathe with a mask on, and one can’t have a proper conversation because ones words sound muffled. I don’t know about you but that’s how I feel!

Face masks impair face recognition and face identification. In our daily life, human observers are extremely proficient in recognising faces, discriminating between them and using them to derive a vast range of information, be it about static features like age, gender or identity, or changeable features like gaze direction, lip movements or emotional states.

Human beings are biologically programmed to recognise faces. As soon as babies are born, they show a preference for looking at human faces above anything else. They will even stare at a basic drawing of a face if it is shown to them. And, by the age of seven months babies are able to recognise emotions on faces such as happy, angry or fearful faces.

On top of this innate preference, the role of social experience in face processing and recognition becomes ever more important. We recognise and identify the faces of our peers faster than faces of strangers, just as we recognise the sounds of our mother tongue better than unfamiliar sounds from unfamiliar languages.

Hiding the lower part of the face with a face mask markedly impairs face recognition and face identification. In fact, this is why burglars and thieves wear them! As mask-wearing has become a normality in many societies, the magnitude with which covering our faces affects our social interactions and ability to recognise and identify other people becomes ever clearer. In school settings, the ability to know and recognise each other is normally taken for granted, and – like air for breathing – it does not come into focus unless it is lacking. But within seconds of absence, its importance is realised.

The most basic form of communication between humans is by facial expressions. This is because facial expressions are a simple universal language that we instinctively understand. It may be for this reason that many people do not like wearing masks at all in the first place.

However, there are some quick fixes for this problem, such as clearly visible name tags, “personalised” masks, and our ability to recognise and identify each other from cues provided by our voice, body shape and posture.

What about the verbal and non-verbal communication…the warm smile we give to children to reassure them?

As we cannot see the lower half of the face when someone is wearing a mask, our ability to understand people is reduced considerably. We are forced to rely only on language and gesture, which limits the extent to which we can interpret the variation, with some input from interpreting eye movements, which are still visible above the mask. In fact, evidence from eye movement studies during gazing at a face suggests that the eye is the facial feature that is attended to first and longest during face processing, as they appear to be most informative in communication. Once we direct our gaze to something, this something thereby can become the focus of shared attention, which is a basic mechanism of doing things and solving problems together.

But second to the eyes are the regions of mouth and nose, when it comes to attending facial features. For effective verbal communication, covering the mouth with cloth has two detrimental consequences:

· First, the auditory signal is impaired, as face masks may dampen sound amplitude, and especially may absorb frequency bands used in speech.

· Second, the visual signal from the lips is completely obstructed. While most people may never have realised, this signal is used by human beings to aid speech understanding.

From birth to about 8 months, babies look at their mother's mouth in order to analyse the stream of sound into meaningful units (phonemes) in order to learn their mother tongue. In fact, if they are bilingual, they have to learn a larger number of phonemes and therefore start to look at their mother's mouth earlier and for longer than monolinguals. When grown up, we tend to look closely at the mouth of somebody under circumstances of impaired sound comprehensibility, such as noisy environments, low quality sound in movies and video calls.

Deaf people use lip-reading and thereby completely rely on visual cues for understanding speech (which is why there are special face masks with a transparent piece over the mouth to meet the demand for visual speech input).

Speaking through a face mask may dampen higher frequencies and therefore may impair verbal communication. The size of the effect depends on the speaker, the type of mask, the listener's hearing and background noise, and may therefore vary between negligible and considerable. In addition, it is well known that visual cues help in speech recognition, which may be an additional cause of face mask induced impairment of speech perception and communication. But the benefit of not transmitting the virus and keeping all of us safe outweighs not being masked!

In addition, the existence of a face mask may reduce the motivation of the wearer to produce facial expressions in the first place. Since such expressions serve the purpose of communication, the realisation of wearing a communications-blocking device will reduce efforts to facially express emotions.

Your face expresses so much of your message, so for the child who is learning a language for the first time, s/he need to have those non-verbal cues to understand the message. Children also learn from the people who they trust and wearing a mask could therefore make it that much more difficult to form those kinds of relationships.

Thereby, to better communicate with a child while wearing a mask, we adults need to get the child's attention before speaking, facing the child directly with no physical or noise barriers in the way and speak slowly, clearly and louder, but not shouting, if needed. We can add contextual information to our words by using our hands, body language and tone of voice. Depending on the response, asking whether the child understood and repeating yourself if necessary.

Other forms of body language then become more important, and as adults we need to be creative in making up for the non-verbal communication the children are losing when we are wearing face masks.

Virginia is one of Little Gems Montessori guides in our Nicosia setting, and WOW, does she have a warm and wonderful smile! Needless to say, a smile and wearing of face masks are therefore important issues to Virginia. Please contact us to learn more about Virginia's views and arrange for a visit to meet Little Gems warm smiles - 22 351319, Nicosia / 96 557661, Larnaca.


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