Is Masking Society Worth The Cost Of Losing Our Smiles?


Masks cover our smiles and hide our emotion. They take away our most valuable communicative tool, our faces. If we lose the ability to read faces we lose empathy. If we lose the ability to share our smiles we lose joy. If we lose empathy and joy, we lose everything.

Covid -19 has taken so much away from us, we can’t let it to take our smiles too. 

Covid -19 has taken our elderly, time with extended family, church fellowship/worship, school, holiday traditions, major life event celebrations, livelihood/jobs, entertainment/sporting events, social gatherings, travel, some basic rights/freedoms, safety/security, and planning for the future. Unfortunately, this is a long list. 

On the other hand it has also given us a few things, fear, uncertainty, loneliness, isolation, and anxiety.  This list is shorter but affects us much differently. To a certain degree the first lists affects our physical nature the second our mental, we hope that many things from the first list will soon pass and we will see normalcy and hopefully a quick recovery, but the items from the second list may take much longer to recover from and in some cases the affects may be long lasting.  Will we ever live without fear?  Will the next flu season bring us right back to where we are today? Are we becoming a people that accepts uncertainty, lives in insolation, and covers our faces in fear? What effect do these things have on our society as a whole and our own person mental health? 

Human beings are social animals

I have always been able to read faces.  I’m not the only one, everyone has this ability most people just don’t use it, that they know of.  Facial expressions are naturally mimicked creating a deeper understanding of the other. This is an inherently God given ability that is meant to bond society together.

Human beings are social creatures and we need each other. The newest catch phrase is, “Doing life together,” we love our social selves. Our family, friends, and community gives us strength, offers us peace, and satisfies our need for acceptance and belonging, it’s within these social circles that we calm our anxiety and increase our mental well being.  We share our experiences, our emotions, and we need to know that others are on our side and understand us (Reiss, 2017). 

In this time of self-quarantine, self-isolation, and six feet of social distancing, how can we share our experiences and emotions and find the socialization that we desperately need? How can we find our strength, peace, feeling of belonging, and how can we calm our mental health?

We find these things in each other’s faces. 

“The human face is important for social interaction,” (Dimberg, 1982, p. 643)

Emotional Contagion 

Our brains are literally wired to mimic facial expressions (Reiss, 2018, p.47). We are equipped with special neurons called mirrors (Gallese et, al, 1996).  These neurons give us the ability to mimic and imitate others, like yawning. We imitate physical movements; infants and children are the best example of this.  Adults will pick up mannerism and patterns of speech from friends, but our mimicry and imitation does not stop at our motor skills, we also pick up emotions from others. (Iacoboni, 2009). 

When we see an expression on another’s face we mimic it on our own,  usually this is a subconscious action, we don’t even know that we do it.  Then when we display an emotion on our face we feel it more strongly.  In other words when you smile at me, you actually feel happier just because you are smiling.  Then I, of course will mimic your smile, and then I will feel happier also. This little gem dates all the way back to Darwin (1872), more recent studies have confirmed his theories on facial expressions (Dimberg, 1997; 1982).  The fancy name used for this phenomenon is “The Facial Feedback Hypothesis.”  Our emotions are so contagious, scientist even have a phrase for it, “emotional contagion.”  The bottom line is this; our emotions are in fact highly contagious, more contagious than Covid -19. We display an emotion on our face, others mimic it, and whatever emotion we display we feel more intensely. If we display a smile we feel joy more intensely, if we display anger we become angrier. 

Psychologist have published much research on which facial muscles do what and when they start to react, the leader in this research is Paul Ekman the creative mind behind, “Lie To Me” and “Inside out.” His research includes a multitude of published papers along with numerous books (Ekman & Friesen 2003; Ekman, 2007) that focus on micro-expressions and the five major emotions; joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust.  Many emotional displays on the face occur through what Ekman calls “rapid signals” (p.11).  When certain emotions start to arise facial muscles begin to contract, which causes changes in the face.  In his book, Unmasking The Face, (2003), Ekman writes that, “The face broadcasts messages about emotion, mood, attitude, etc…(p.11).  He goes on to say that, “People regard facial expressions as more trustworthy than words,” (p. 135).  We don’t need to be experts in reading micro-expressions, not very many folks are, to read faces and understand other’s emotions, as much as we just need to be human beings, our mirror neurons do most of the work for us.  

Anger is one of the easiest emotions to mimic.  Have you ever notice how fast anger spreads through a crowd, or a political party? Crowd contagion can happen in any size group with any emotion, (Goldman, 2006).  Joy, and happiness can spread through a crowd at a concert or movie just as easily. The smile is also very easy to mimic, we don’t need to dive deep into research to know that a smile is contagious. I believe all of us can relate to how nice it is to see others smiling at each other.  From across the room, or across the park, we can see a smile 300 feet away ( It feels good to smile, and it feels even better when others reciprocate our smile back at us.  However, there are two kinds of smiles, the fake smile and the genuine smile of pure joy (Duchenne, 2006). 

The fake smile simply uses the muscles at the corners of the mouth.  A genuine smile of pure joy will use the muscles at the corners of the mouth but also the muscles at the top of the cheeks and around the eyes.  A genuine smile of pure joy is shown in the eyes, a fake smile is simply displayed at the mouth.  A frown on the other hand, uses the muscles in the forehead.  The forehead will wrinkle, the eyebrows will pull together in the middle causing a crease above the nose, and the eyes will narrow.  

In passing we do not care if a smile is fake or genuine our facial muscles automatically react when we see one. If all we can see are eyes we have to be able to see the eyes smile, a fake smile will not show in the eyes.  However, anger very distinctly shows around the eyes, but can be confused with other emotional displays if the rest of the face is covered. We subconsciously reciprocate any emotion we see or think we see. If we want to display an opposite emotion we must do that on purpose or consciously, and this is not always easy to do. It’s also important to note that when an emotion is not mimicked the sender will feel misunderstood. If a different emotion is displayed on the receiver the sender can feel as if his/her feelings have not been validated causing their feeling (anger) to become more intense.

To wear a mask or not wear a mask that is the question 

For many years we have been a country divided, yet on the onset of this virus we were brought together, the mantra was in fact, “We are all in this together,” and we sure were, and should still be, but lately I’m seeing division.  We are divided on opening up or staying locked down.  We are divided on the difference between government overreach and government responsibility.  Lastly we are divided on wearing a mask. 

The actual question is what is the cost of becoming a masked society? I specialize in human communication and relationships.  I am focused on how human beings communicate everyday verbally, but also non-verbally like through facial expressions.  We share our emotions, express ourselves, show empathy, spread joy, and gain understanding all through facial expressions. I am concerned about our human condition and how quickly anger is spreading, specifically between the anti-maskers, and pro-maskers, and how divided we have become on this issue.  

I am asking that we think about the effectiveness of the mask, if there are alternatives, what we stand to lose if we keep our faces covered, and how we treat the others that do the opposite.  My concern is our natural ability to read facial expressions, and the effects of our mental health and how we view the world if we cover the face.  According to the Denver Public School website ( children and adults will most likely be required to wear masks in the classroom in the fall of 2020.  I am sure Denver is not the only city that is moving in this direction. I am not afraid to say that this is frightening.  I can’t bear to think of children confined to a mask, the anxiety that they may feel, and the real chance of them not being able to read the facial expressions of their peers, their teachers, administrators, and all other adults that they come in contact with throughout a school day. Shouldn’t this be researched more in depth before we jump to this position? Shouldn’t putting all of society in masks be a last resort and not the first step?

Slowing the spread of this virus falls on the shoulders of all of us, yet at what cost?  Every time we face a decision in this new world we are living in we have to stop and weigh that cost.  From the beginning we have stood on the fence determined to save lives and not allow the solutions to be worse than the virus itself.  We continue making strides in protecting our physical health, and are beginning an economic recovery.  However, in this recovery limitations are being placed on our lifestyles including new mandates about mask wearing.  Now is the time to focus on our mental well-being, and being mentally well means living in a world were we can see, feel and spread joy.  It means sharing our emotion/feelings and expecting others to reciprocate those emotions/feelings back to us, which creates understanding.

Is wearing a mask worth the cost of covering our smiles and losing our ability to read faces?  What about the opposite, what if others can’t read us? It’s not just joy and anger we display on our face or we see in others it’s all emotion like, sadness, fear, grief, hurt, worry, and concern? When we see these emotions displayed on other’s faces, our mirror neurons are triggered to feel empathy. Our feeling of empathy will move us to an act of compassion. This is too much to lose, if there are other methods that work without covering our face should we not use them fully in order to save our smiles and empathy? 

If we lose the ability to know what others are feeling, we could lose empathy, if we lose empathy, we lose everything. 

How much does wearing a mask help?

What does the research really say? In this section I am simply repeating the researchI have found on the effectiveness of masks. We already know from, not just years of research but decades, that our brain is hard wired for mimicry and that our emotions are contagious.  We also know, from years of study, how to protect ourselves from germs and typical viruses. Since Covid-19 is new, research is changing everyday, and the research on how well masks protect us is also fluid. 

According to many websites and studies (additional resources below), masks are minimal protection.  These referenced websites state that masks along with, not separate from*, personal hygiene, social distancing, disinfecting, and staying home work to slow the spread but masks alone do very little.  A mask is a tool in the toolbox not a substitute for the other things.  These websites agree that it is too soon to tell what effect masks have on slowing the spread.  

However, there is no question that proper and continuous hygiene, disinfecting, social distancing, and staying home do work.   We also know that covering our mouths when we sneeze or cough works, this concept is also not new.  We have done these things during typical flu seasons for as long as I can remember, and I have lived for more than five decades.  So, as we fight about how effective masks are we absolutely know beyond a shadow of a doubt how effective these other things are.   A person who is not wearing a mask can still be very careful about slowing the spread and being responsible for others.  At the same time a person who is wearing a mask can be very careless if the mask is not worn or cared for properly. 

All of these websites, including the CDC and WHO have guidelines on proper mask use.  The most important thing to consider is this, if we breath on the front of the mask we have contaminated it, then once we touch the front of our mask with our own hands, we have contaminated our hands.  Meaning you cannot pull it up and down.  I see this all of the time. If we touch and adjust our masks we have defeated the purpose.  Reporters on TV will sometimes hold their mask or remove it to speak then pull it back up. I am also seeing reporters hang their mask from one ear while the speak.  Our Speaker of The House wears her mask as she approaches a podium to speak, then pulls it down leaving it to hang around her neck, this is a big no-no (Fraley, 2020; CDC, 2020; WHO, 2020).  Coming in and out of stores folks pull their mask from their purse or back pocket before putting it one, leaving the store the opposite is true, pulling it off and stuffing it away for next time. I even see this on the hiking trail.  I see others approaching without a face covering, as they get close they pull their mask up.  I can only assume they pull it back down once we have passed. 

Most studies reveal that the virus can be expelled during speaking, and droplets/aerosols usually fall within close proximity of a person, hence the six-foot rule. If an infected person pulls their mask down to speak and droplets are expelled they could potentially contaminate the front of the mask.  If then the infected person pulls their mask back up and makes contact with infected droplets their hands have now become contaminated. The opposite is also true, if another is infected and their contaminants land on the front of someone’s mask and then the wearer touches it to adjust it their hands have been contaminated in this situation also. These same resources repeatedly state that if a mask is touched with bare hands, hand-sanitizing processes must immediately begin before touching anything else. 

How well do masks stop the virus?

The CDC has confirmed through research that the virus spreads from person to person through droplets produced from sneezing, coughing, or talking, which could infect others.  It also warns that asymptomatic people can spread Covid-19. This is the reason we are told to cover our face when in public, but they stress that a cloth facemask is not a substitute for social distancing. 

It is important to note that the CDC clearly states, “Cloth face coverings can be used as an additionalvoluntary* public heath measure” (CDC, 2020).

Not all masks are created equal; N95, surgical masks, and cloth masks all play different roles and have different filtering capabilities. N95, (surgical/industrial) and surgical masks are meant to protect the wearer and others to different degrees, the wearer from sprays and splashes, the other from airborne contaminants (WHO, 2020; CDC, 2020). However, a mask made of cloth is not made specifically to keep contamination in our out. Virus particles are small; if fabric is stretchy or can be seen through it probably has holes big enough for the virus to get through from both directions. 

WHO specifically states that, “Wearing a mask must be combined with other preventive measures including performing frequent and appropriate hand hygiene and physical distancing of a least 1 meter or 3 feet,” (WHO, 2020).

In one study (Bae et al., 2020) patients were asked to cough into a petri dish wearing a surgical mask, then a cotton mask. They concluded that both types of masks were not effective in containing the spread of the virus to the environment.  This experiment actually found the virus on the outside of the masks, meaning the virus was either projected out through the pores of each mask because of the velocity of the cough or through the air pockets around the side and edges of the mask. 

However, in a another study, (Leung et al., 2020) concluded that surgical masks can reduce, not eliminate* the emission of droplets and aerosols from infected patients, but this study did not include the cloth face masks recommended to be worn by the general pubic.

The CDC website as of the writing of this article posts seven resource articles, six of the seven (one could not be retrieved) articles refer to the spread of the virus not the effectiveness of wearing face covering. In the six articles the word mask was mentioned only three times and in only one article, the phrase PPE was mentioned only once, in the same article (Arons, et. al, 2020).  The first mention recommended all HCP wear mask along with eye protection, gown, and gloves when attending to symptomatic residents of the nursing home. The second mention pertained to the discovery that HCP continued to work with mild to no symptoms, which likely lead to early spread to residents.  The recommendation is that all HCP wear masks to prevent viral shedding from staff members. This is the only mention in the six articles that mentions wearing a mask to protect the others, keep in mind this is in a very volatile environment. Mention three required facemasks for all staff while in the facility.*   The only mention of PPE was the recommendation to use it when available during all residents care activities. Wei (2020) does not mention mask but does underscore the importance of social distancing and avoiding large crowds.

WHO has a different prospective.  They do not recommend the use of putting the general public in facemasks, but they do support countries that do, by listing guidelines for proper use and sanitation. Their article defines masks as surgical or procedure masks and specifically mentions that research on non-medical masks, cotton, or other fabric, in the community has not been fully evaluated and is asking countries who do encourage community masks to conduct research themselves.

The reports are indeed conflicting, however every single study agrees on one thing masks alone do little without the other measures.  If we remove the mask from the equation we are still doing our part. Basic hygiene, disinfecting, covering sneezes and coughs, along with respect for others personal space do work. If the medical experts can’t come to a consensus on the effectiveness of masks and if research is not conclusive then we need to look in other fields like psychology and communication to see how masks can effect our relationships, how we view the world, our overall feelings of joy or anger and how that is spread, and ultimately our mental well-being. Are masks worth the cost of losing so much if there are other methods to slow the spread?

Social distancing

Many people think social distancing is a new thing, it is not.  If we didn’t learn if from our parents then we learned it in a basic high school or college communication course.  It has always been a thing.  There is a respectful distance that we need to keep away from others, usually a good arms length, but everyone has their own personal bubble.  We should have always been maintaining a good distance from our fellow human beings.  Again, this is not new, we have just lost this practice because we like to go to concerts, shop in malls at holidays, sit in stadiums, and go to clubs.  

When this is all over we will be able to do those things again. Maybe then it will be more socially acceptable to move away from someone who you feel is standing too close to you, without the dirty look and display of disgust from the offense taken by the other. The point is, every single one of these websites including the CDC and WHO stress the importance of maintaining distance from others whether wearing a mask or not. Both organizations maintain that virus droplets/aerosols fall close to the body when expelled and even at a higher velocity like a cough or sneeze won’t likely propel the droplets/aerosols more than six feet.

Losing our smile, losing our joy

Covid – 19 is taking away our most important asset as human beings, our smiles, and our ability to communicate through our facial expressions.  It is not just our smiles, as I previously mentioned, it is all of the emotion we display on our faces, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, grief, guilt, and of course joy, unfortunately anger is still very visible, and is spreading rapidly.   

We communicate with our facial expression to friends and loved ones, but in these cases we also have our words, but even in these situations people are more apt to believe facial expression over words (Ekman, 2003, p. 135). Our face is all we have to communicate with strangers.  This is how we connect to each other.  This is how we read people. This is how we view the world; we see anger in the world through angry faces, and we see joy in the world through smiling faces. I have heard stories, about people who were committed to taking their own life but changed their mind when someone smiled at them, or simply a day was brightened when a stranger smiled at them, that is all it took to turn someone’s life around.  A smile is that powerful. 

We stand the risk of losing our joy if we lose our smiles, but what about understanding, or empathy (Reiss, 2017)?  Is it possible to feel empathic to another human being without mimicking their facial expression, then feeling the feeling more intensely ourselves.  Yes, through cognition/imagination, also known as perspective taking, it’s basically the shoe on the other foot test.  To purposely imagine how you would feel if you were experiencing what the other is experiencing at that moment, but this takes conscious effort and time and is difficult to do.  Through our mirror neurons and mimicry our faces will mimic another’s grief. Through this primal empathy (Goldman, 2006,) we feel it without much work on our end.  This allows us to turn our empathetic feelings into compassion, which leads to action.

If we lose our facial expression, we lose what connects us, empathy, understanding, and joy. We lose seeing smiling faces and the ability to mimic and reciprocate those smiles. I’m afraid we could lose ourselves, our peace, our community, and our mental well being.  Yes! It’s that important.  Our faces tell our stories if we keep them covered how can we tell those stories to a busy world rushing by. 

Can we wear a mask and still show joy? Still show the world our smile? 

Sure we can, as long as we can smile with our eyes.  The genuine smile or the smile of pure joy displays around our eyes.  Instead of everyone seeing a frown around our eyes and then reciprocating anger, we need to smile with our eyes, others will see joy, that joy will be reciprocated and will spread, much faster than Covid-19.

However, we need to consider the other emotions.  Joy may or may not be recognizable with a mask, and of course we know that anger is easily recognizable, but what about our other emotions.  Will we recognize sadness, hurt, grief, embarrassment, shame, guilt, etc…?  If we cannot recognize these emotions in and around the eyes will we lose our automatic feelings of concern and empathy?  If others can’t read these emotions on our face, will we feel misunderstood, isolated, and alone? These are valid concerns.  If there are other ways to slow the spread and make others feel safe like covering our sneeze and cough without keeping our faces continually covered, shouldn’t we explore them?

Covid – 19 has already taken so much from us and has given us nothing but trouble.  

Let us come together again like we did at the onset and not allow this virus or the next one that may come our way to take our smiles, joy, and sharing of all our emotions.  Wear a mask if it makes you feel safe, but wear in sparingly and temporarily, but at the same time ask yourself what you intent truly is? Are you really wearing a mask to protect others? If that is indeed your intent than you are performing an act of kindness, and compassion.  

If it truly is our intent to wear a mask to protect others than we are doing a noble thing and I have never met anyone, ever, who is grumpy while they are preforming an act of compassion.  I have never met anyone who hates the very person they are trying to help.  If we show anger because someone else is not wearing a mask maybe our true intent is to protect ourselves, which is completely fine.  Let me repeat that, it is perfectly okay to want to protect ourselves from Covid-19 or for that matter any other virus that may be floating by, this is not selfish, it’s self preservation.

If you choose to wear a mask do it properly and follow the guidelines for cleanliness and care, but also continue to practice all the other measures that have been laid out.  If you choose not to wear a mask make sure to practice all the other recommendations, and cover up a cough or sneeze that may sneak up on you, then quickly sanitize your hands. 

However, it is important to understand that wearing a mask is not the only or even the best way to slow the spread of this virus and that covering up our faces may take more away from us than we ever would want to lose. Mandating mask wearing for everyone may not be in society’s best interest, or the best interest for our mental well being. As I previously asked shouldn’t this be the very last resort?

Restoring our mental health 

Remember at the end of the day our emotions are much more contagious than Covid-19 could ever dream of being.  We can only slow the spread of Covid-19 until it dies out on its own.  We have very little control over it at all.   However, there are things we can control. We can sanitize, disinfect, keep our distance, and cover our coughs and sneezes. We can also, completely stop the spread of anger, by lifting our brows and widening our eyes, and using our cheek muscles to create wrinkles around our eyes, creating a genuine smile of pure joy. Also, understanding our own intent, are we wearing a mask for ourselves or for others? A change in attitude will allow us to feel good and safe about our own choices and understand we can’t make choices for other people.  

We can spread joy exponentially through our own facial expression, and we become empathic by catching others emotions.  

Our faces tell our story, and show our emotion.  

Remember, there is nothing more contagious than a smile.

                                                        …nothing more peaceful…

                                                        …nothing more comforting….

                                                        …nothing more accepting…

                                                       …nothing more reassuring…

                                                       …nothing more calming…

                                                      …nothing more encouraging…

                                                      …nothing more patient….

                                                      …nothing more uplifting….

Human faces are beautiful; they are even more beautiful with a smile.

*emphasis mine  

At the end of March I was diagnosed with bronchitis. I became part of the vulnerable population and self-isolated for over 40 days. When I ventured back out into society the world had changed….read more


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Additional  Resources

Chodosh, S. (2020, April 21). Face masks are now recommended for all, but how much do … Retrieved May 29, 2020, from

COVID-19: How much protection do face masks offer? – Mayo … (n.d.). Retrieved May 29, 2020, from

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Margulis, J., & Neuenschwander, P. (2020, May 13). Healthy People Wearing Masks, Should They or Shouldn’t They? Retrieved May 29, 2020, from

Pappas, S. (2020, April 12). Do face masks really reduce coronavirus spread? Experts … Retrieved May 29, 2020, from

Wamsley, L., & Aubrey, A. (2020, April 3). Coronavirus FAQs: Is A Homemade Mask Effective … – Retrieved May 29, 2020, from