Ex-FBI agent reveals how to communicate in a mask
Acclaimed body language expert reveals how to interact when everyone is wearing a mask

Joe Navarro is one of the world’s foremost authorities on reading faces but as an FBI agent he was more interested in hands. “The average civilian will look at the face first,” he told StoryCode. “But in law enforcement you look at the hands because they can hurt you.”

Looking beyond the face to read people is becoming an important skill because many people are wearing masks to help prevent the spread of Covid-19: more than 40 countries have now asked their citizens to wear masks.

Seeing people wearing masks is a disturbing indication of the scale and impact of the pandemic but it is also a disconcerting reminder of how much we rely on mouths and noses to understand how other people are feeling and to communicate how we are feeling.


Laura Peek

Laura is the founder of StoryCode and a former Staff News Reporter at The Times and The Daily Mail. She has also written for The Guardian.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Photos: Banner: Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash; Anonymous mask: Fotografierende on Pexels; Graphic: www.justposhmasks.com

“The brain looks for information on faces,” says Navarro, who was a founding member of the FBI’s elite Behavioural Analysis Programme. “When it is not there it causes us dissonance so masks bother us.

“The face – that really helpful vector of information – is no longer available. That’s why it’s so unsettling when we see a full-face mask like the Guy Fawkes/Anonymous one.”

Masks can also feel threatening because they are associated with crime: movie villains from Darth Vader and Hannibal Lector to Ghostface and Bane wear masks, as of course do real-life criminals.

“We have become habituated to the idea that a mask signifies a bad guy,” says Navarro. “We associate masks with bandits and bank robbers. In the Wild West, the easiest way for a cowboy to disguise himself was to raise his bandana over his mouth and nose. It was the same with highwaymen in London in the early 1900s – they would raise their scarves over their faces.”

The Guy Fawkes mask is a depiction of Guy Fawkes who plotted to blow up the House of Lords in London on 5 November 1605. The mask came to represent broader protest when it was used in the graphic novel V for Vendetta and its 2005 film adaptation. The mask also became a symbol for the online hacktivist group Anonymous and other anti-establishment movements. This led to it becoming known as the Anonymous mask.

Our instinctive response to someone wearing a mask is therefore to be wary or fearful, especially if they are wearing a bandana or scarf rather than a medical mask. (Governments have asked people to wear bandanas or scarves or to make homemade masks to protect supplies of medical masks for healthcare workers.)

So will Covid-19 masks change how we communicate with each other and are there behaviors we can adopt to make ourselves and others more comfortable?

A 1919 newspaper illustration about the Spanish Flu by cartoonist Charles Nuttall reads: “No, Sir – These are not Anarchists en route to a rendezvous. They are really nice people, going to attend a Sabbath evening church service.” Image: National Archives of Australia

Reading Others
Start with the eyes to determine whether someone is relaxed or troubled, says Navarro, who famously caught the US ice-pick killer by studying his eyes.

When the eyes are narrowed – what Navarro calls the Clint Eastwood effect – it indicates discomfort, stress or anger. Rapid blinking, meanwhile, suggests someone is nervous or under stress. When people are truly comfortable they will look away to retrieve facts from their memory or ponder their point.

Assessing the eyes and eyebrows together can also be revealing: widened eye lids and raised brows indicate fear; high u-shaped eyebrows suggest surprise; drooping eyelids with eyebrows tensely drawn up and together means sadness; and eyebrows pulled down and together indicate anger.

Other parts of the face visible outside the mask can be helpful too: activated upper cheeks with crinkled crow’s feet mean genuine happiness whilst wrinkling on the bridge of the nose – what Navarro calls “the bunny nose” – signifies disgust.

The feet can also offer powerful clues about how someone is feeling. The writer and zoologist Desmond Morris has observed that the feet and legs are the most ‘honest’ part of the body. “By social convention we have to be nice to each other,” says Navarro. “But feet have no such convention. If I see someone I don’t like at a party I might nod but my feet will turn away.”

Since retiring from the FBI, Navarro has become one of the world’s leading experts in nonverbal communication. His body language book What Every Body Is Saying became an international bestseller. Images: www.jnforensics.com

Reassuring Others
Navarro, who now wears a mask every day in his home town of Tampa, Florida, suggests adopting certain behaviors to reassure others in these extraordinary times.

Even under normal circumstances we can be bad at assessing how much physical space people need in order to feel comfortable, he says. “I once asked an audience of 1,200 people whether anyone had ever invaded their space. Every hand went up.”

Under usual circumstances people have different spatial needs depending whether the interaction is intimate, personal, social or public, he adds.

In these exceptional times, there is an additional spatial distance: the prophylactic zone or the safe distance for avoiding contagion. As we all know, this can take some getting used to but there are some things we can do.

“On the street I would start signaling at a distance,” Navarro says. “Normally you wait until you are about a metre away from someone before greeting them but now I would wave from about three or four metres to show I respect the person and am aware of their concerns.”

He adds: “My eyes would engage them using gravity-defying behaviors like eyebrow flashes. This is one of the most ancient behaviors we have (if you want to make a baby happy, flash your eyebrows and they will smile). I would also give a genuine smile that engages the muscles around the eyes.”

Once conversing, Navarro suggests nodding and using head tilts to encourage and convey interest. We are wired to respond to head tilts as this is a gesture we see as babies when our mothers hold us in their arms and tilt their heads to look at us.

“I think people around the world will become more comfortable wearing masks,” he adds. “We will get used to them.”

Public health experts agree and are encouraging people to think of mask-wearing as a socially responsible act. “I wear a mask to protect you and you wear a mask to protect me,” KK Cheng, professor of public health at the University of Birmingham, told StoryCode. “If everyone wears a simple DIY mask, everyone is protected. We must do it.”

Perhaps soon masks will be associated with courtesy rather than villainy.

This anti-smog mask from London’s Great Smog in the early 1950s solved the problem of shielding the face without obscuring it. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, it did not catch on.

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