The Eyes Have It – Human Communication in a Covid World

As a writer, I’m interested by the way people communicate. Now we’re all wearing masks, it’s a challenge to get our emotions across in the old-school way, full-facial with a smile. It’s proving fascinating to watch people expressing themselves creatively in this tricky new social landscape.

Face masks mean our eyes are our main form of facial communication at the moment. The eyes have it! But we’re clearly finding it a challenge to communicate our feelings with our eyes alone.

We widen our eyes in shock. We squeeze our eyes shut in pain. When we smile the skin around our eyes crinkles. But without a nose and mouth to add subtlety and granularity to our expressions, our eyes are actually comparatively blunt instruments.

Luckily we have eyebrows, or most of us do, and they help a lot. I’m noticing a flurry of creative eyebrow expressions that we don’t usually use unless we want to exaggerate our message by pulling a dramatic face.

Eyebrows are a great way to express surprise. Raise your brows so high they disappear into your hairline and everyone knows you’ve just encountered something unexpected, sat on something pointy, or had a nasty shock. We have always lifted our brows and widened our eyes to express disbelief. We’ve always frowned hard and closed our eyes part-way to reveal displeasure or anger. But these days we’re being forced to take our eyebrow expressions to new and exciting places. Our eyebrows are working harder than ever before.

Wrinkling the visible part of the bridge of your nose seems to be another good way to add definition and accuracy to an above-the-mask expression. Talented ear wigglers probably find their ears come in handy. The fortunate few who can raise one eyebrow with ease have another seriously useful emotion-expressing tool at their disposal, perfect for helping to express cool things like sarcasm and irony.

Our hands are also working much harder to support our eyes in their quest for accurate communication. We’re starting to use dramatic hand gesturing in the same way expressive Latin cultures have long been famed for.

The other day I saw someone cross their eyes at someone while raising their gaze skywards and frowning. It looked like she was trying to express bafflement, maybe slight disgust, perhaps concern that the person she was talking to had lost the plot. It was actually hard to tell.

Unlike some countries where people have worn masks as a matter of course for years, we Brits still have a lot to learn about making limited facial expressions count. At the same time Covid-19 is likely to become endemic, circulating the human population year after year forever, like flu. It looks like we’re all going to have to learn to use our eyes, eyebrows and hands a lot more fluently in future.

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