(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
These days when I go for a run with my mask on, I find myself falling out of a habit that I had had pre-pandemic: smiling at other runners and walkers on the trails. With the mask covering my mouth, a smile seemed silly.
However, neuroscience researchers say–No, it’s not silly. In fact, a smile, even if it is unseen, can have a positive effect on our emotions and on those people whom we are smiling at.
As our campuses slowly open up to more face-to-face contact with colleagues, students and others we come across while still wearing masks, we’ll have opportunities to increase a feeling of connectedness and well-being with just a little effort behind our masks.
There is a simple trick that you can use if you’d like to feel good about the people you pass by on campus (or on the streets): smile behind your mask. This was what researchers concluded from an experiment involving electrodes attached to subjects to study their brain activity while rating a set of pictures of people with neutral expressions. They found that the subjects who smiled during the process were more likely to have a positive reaction to those faces in the pictures.*
That trick can also work if you’d like to improve your chances of appreciating humor in life around you. To test the idea that just smiling can do to this, researchers had subjects place a pen between their teeth in a way that would either cause them to smile or not smile. The ones who smiled rated cartoons funnier than the ones who didn’t smile.*
So now we know how to make ourselves feel more upbeat. But how about if you’d like to give a bit of a lift to other people in a time when many are feeling disconnected from others? This feeling can be especially common among International Student who are living away from home and have few chances to meet new people and interact with classmates due to social distancing guidelines.
One easy way to change others’ feelings of disconnection is through eye-contact, whether or not we include a smile behind our masks. This was found through an experiment in which the researcher did one of three things as he walked past a stranger: (1) made eye contact with a neutral look on his face; (2) made eye contact with a smile; (3) glanced in the direction of the stranger but didn’t make eye-contact. A research assistant then followed the strangers for a minute, approached them and then asked them, “Within the last minute, how disconnected do you feel from others?” The results showed that the third group (who had received no eye-contact) felt more disconnected than the other two groups. Interestingly, this third group, who hadn’t experienced eye-contact, indicated that they felt disconnected not only from the stranger (researcher) who had just glanced in their direction but also from people in general.*
That seems like a pretty simple practice we can follow when coming across others, especially International Students whom we may not know personally, to help them feel more like a part of the community.
Finally, you can actually give yourself more energy to nod or wave hello to others with a smile behind your mask. A cognitive neuroscientist explains that it harder to engage with others through friendly gestures without a smile. If you have just a neutral expression, it takes more conscious effort to energize your body language.
I wanted to share this research with my students and to give them a perspective on mask-wearing, so I wrote a short article along with a few comprehension questions, which could be used as a reading assignment or listening exercise. Feel free to use it with your students; here is the link Smiling behind masks Article and Ex
Well, I just got back from a run in which I tried to make eye-contact and to smile behind my mask while passing by others on the trail. And I can report that I came back feeling more upbeat and in solidarity with others than I had recently.
*For more details about the experiments, see the linked article for students.