A woman who wears a Niqab, a deaf man, an actor,
a psychotherapist and a researcher
weigh in on communicating with concealed faces. 


Have you ever heard of a Duchenne smile? 

While an ordinary smile might be bound to the mouth, the Duchenne goes beyond, incorporating other parts of the face to great effect.

“It’s the difference between somebody who smiles, and that smile doesn’t touch the eyes, versus a smile that does touch the eyes,” said Toronto-based psychotherapist Terra Kowalyk. “One is perceived as genuine, and the other is perceived as fake.”

If, as the old proverb suggests, the eyes are the windows to the soul, you can probably guess which is which.

The Duchenne smile is perhaps better known as the “smize,”  shorthand for “smiling with your eyes.” The term was coined by supermodel Tyra Banks, and has since become common practice for models and actors trying to tap the emotive power of their eyes.

But with face masks now mandatory on Ottawa transit, and in wide use elsewhere, the “smize” is a skill many Ottawa residents will likely be forced to learn.

It speaks to broader questions concerning communication in a pandemic, when we are encouraged or required to cover half of our faces in public. How can we continue to express emotion from behind the mask?

Advice from 19 years of experience

Mahwash Fatima is a marketing professional working from home in Ottawa. 

She wears a Niqab, a veil worn by some Muslim women that covers everything but the eyes and brow. Fatima wears her Niqab in public, removing it at home. 

While she described differences between the Niqab and a face mask — the former is long and flowing, allowing for more movement of the face — both leave mainly just the eyes exposed.  

Mahwash Fatima, wearing a Niqab, has mastered non-verbal communication.
Ottawa resident Mahwash Fatima has worn a Niqab for almost 20 years. She says that for people who are worried about communication while wearing a face mask, “it’s no big deal.” [Photo @ Mahwash Fatima]

But Fatima said that this has little effect on her ability to communicate.

“There’s nothing extra that I [do to communicate],” said Fatima. Self-described as outgoing, social interaction comes naturally to her. As such, communicating while wearing her Niqab has never been an issue, thanks in large part to her eyes.

“I’ve been told my eyes are very expressive,” she said, adding that she knows this might not be the case for everyone. 

She also makes use of hand gestures, but this is more out of habit than anything.

As for interactions with others, Fatima said that people have no trouble recognizing her in public. 

A couple of years after completing her business degree at the University of Ottawa, Fatima was shopping at a grocery store when she was approached by a former classmate.  

“Mahwash,” the classmate said, “How are you?” 

Fatima, a bit surprised, asked how her classmate had recognized her. 

“I just knew who you were,” was the reply. 

Natural abilities

Human eyes are powerful and highly accurate couriers of emotional information, according to a 2017 study performed out of the University of Toronto

“We asked how good people are at identifying these six basic emotions just based on the eyes, and we found they were pretty good,” explained study co-author Daniel Lee, referring to fear, awe, suspicion, disgust, hate and interest.

The results revealed an average recognition rate of 90 per cent or higher among participants, meaning that most people accurately guessed the emotions conveyed solely through the eyes.

This emotive power evidently serves an evolutionary purpose, as demonstrated by Lee’s earlier research on the two fundamental eye expressions: wide, connoting fear, and narrow, associated with disgust.

Through this research, Lee proved that these two eye shapes were related to sensory functions. Widening the eyes allows for the intake of more light, gathering more information from one’s surroundings, while narrowing improves acuity, sharpening focus on small details. 

In his 2017 study, Lee wanted to examine participants’ ability to associate these expressions with more nuanced “mental states.”

“Sure enough, there’s this tradeoff: light sensitivity seems to convey information about sensitivity mental states to others such as awe or interest,” he said. “And the inverse is true. Acuity conveys discriminative states such as hate or suspicion.”

Playing up the eyes

For those in the business of feigning emotion, mastering the emotive power of the eyes is a valuable skill.

“The root or the centre of intention and therefore expression, comes from the eyes,” said Cara Krisman, an actor, singer and aspiring fight coordinator — a choreographer of combat scenes for film, television and stage.

Since graduating from Montreal’s National Theatre School in 2018, she has performed in The Ward Cabaret at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, appeared as Chana in a production of Indecent at the Segal Centre in Montreal, and co-ordinated fight scenes in Timescape Picture’s When We Meet Again (2020).

To best communicate while wearing a mask, Krisman suggests making direct eye contact. “There’s a different energy emerging from the eyes,” she said, a fact that became abundantly clear to her in theatre school.

She described a common drill where students sit across from one another, maintaining eye contact for an extended period of time. For Krisman, this was a “ground shaking experience,” exposing her to an energy that “there is no hiding [from].”

Actor, singer and emerging fight-scene coordinator Cara Krisman demonstrates emoting with the eyes while wearing a mask. Other pieces of advice for communicating: smiling extra big when smiling, and clearing the hair away from the face. [Video provided by Cara Krisman]

Krisman acknowledged that acting — and communicating in general— is not all in the eyes. Facial expressions act in concert with the voice, another key mode of communication obscured by face masks.

“It’s my voice that is most compromised in these situations,” she said, explaining that the mask often muffles her words.

In response, she has made an effort to raise the volume of her speaking voice, focussing on projection and enunciation.

Seen and heard

Bill Rodgers is deaf and relies on lip reading to enable communication with hearing people, a tool that's not available when someone is wearing a mask.
Edmonton resident Bill Rodgers is deaf and relies on lip reading to enable communication with hearing people, a tool no longer at his disposal when someone is wearing a face mask. [Photo @ Bill Rodgers].

While clearly a powerful communicative tool, one thing the eyes cannot do is speak.

Bill Rodgers is deaf. While he can hear a little with the help of hearing aids, he relies heavily on lip reading to understand what others are saying.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Edmonton resident — a former teacher at the Alberta School for the Deaf — has often had to ask people to remove their masks when speaking to him. Some agree to do so, others don’t. 

Rodgers’ doctor is someone he can trust to understand his needs.

“He will take the mask off for me, because he knows I can’t hear. I talk to him and he talks to me, which is fine, it works out really well,” he said. “But some people don’t do that and I have a hard time understanding them. It’s frustrating sometimes.”

That said, even those who refuse to take their masks off are often quick to scribble down what they said. Still, he said he feels caught between his preferred mode of communication, and respect for the precautions taken by others.

It’s an extra obstacle to connecting, Rodgers said, “but you have to respect them, right?”

Unmasking 

Rodgers is not the only one facing such a dilemma.

Terra Kowalyk is a Toronto-based psychotherapist trained in Gestalt therapy, a discipline, she said, relies heavily on the client’s facial expressions.

“If a client is expressing something, but I am feeling and sensing that it’s something else from their facial expression — from their breath, from their lips, their mouth — it’s my job to go pause, and say let’s go back there for one moment.”

While Kowalyk took her practice online at the beginning of the pandemic, she said that she is inviting patients back for in-person sessions now that restrictions are loosening, with one caveat: no masks.

She said covering the face removes “a huge part of the very subtle emotional cues that make it almost impossible then for me to support the client in a way that I am trained, and I feel I am ethically doing a whole good job, otherwise I am just a friend that is listening.”

Showing her own face is also an important part of treatment, as she constantly gives non-verbal feedback. 

“Can you imagine sharing something exciting, to someone who has a flat face?” she said. “It would be very disregulating inside. We are constantly searching for little cues from the other person.” 

Kowalyk will keep online sessions open for clients not comfortable seeing her in person. She said she is taking every precaution to make her office safe, regularly sanitizing surfaces and rearranging furniture to allow for proper distancing. She is also being tested for COVID-19 every two weeks.

While Kowalyk may have options to overcome the obstacle posed by face masks, Rodgers said that he “doesn’t have much of a choice,” recognizing that this “new normal” could last for years to come.

For Rodgers, this message is really driven home by the media.

“Every time I see the news, people are in face masks,” he said. “Thank God for closed captions.”

Mismatch

As for the Duchenne smile, Lee said it is somewhat of an anomaly in his research. When people are shown a set of eyes conveying one emotion, paired with a mouth conveying another, the eyes tend to take precedence.  

This is not the case with Duchenne eyes, however. When smiling eyes are paired with a scowling mouth, participants registered disgust over happiness.

So what does this mean in a world where out mouths are concealed by face masks?

Lee said he is “interested to see what nuanced holes we find ourselves in,” asking whether — in the post-pandemic world — there will “be an odd smattering of expressions that we will be bad at detecting.”