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Do Face Masks Really Conceal Emotions?

Everyone knows how to fake a smile. We learn when to show and hide our genuine emotions from early face-to-face exchanges. Parents instinctively want to shield their children from negative social experiences. So they reward emotional displays that will encourage and facilitate acceptance from others. Children learn to behave in specific ways to receive social approval. Part of this process is developing a social smile to hide unacceptable emotions.

The social smile is often activated automatically. We may not be fully aware of it. We might smile reflexively to put the brakes on showing too much negative emotion in public. We may maintain a calm, relaxed smile to prevent fear from upwelling and getting the best of us. We can also intentionally use the social smile to pepper our communication — like smiling, assuringly at someone who appears suspicious of us, or flashing a quick smile at an attractive stranger from across the room.

Even before the pandemic, our daily communications involved a complex mixture of authentic and fake smiles. Now that many of us are wearing face masks in public, how does it influence our communication of emotion?

Some people are finding it a relief. Those suffering from social anxiety may welcome wearing face masks precisely because they prefer to veil their emotional state from the outside world as much as possible. They suffer from the dread that others are noticing that they are blushing or anxious and making negative judgments about them. Others appreciate the freedom from the obligation to put others at ease with a warm, friendly smile. By wearing a face mask, you don’t have to smile if you don’t feel like it. Everyone can relax into their Resting Bitch Face.

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