We often look at communication through an organizational lens: CEO messages to x number of employees, or collaboration platforms, or networks flowing vertically and horizontally. But the reality is that communication within organizations is based on building blocks of interpersonal communication between two or more people.

Which made me wonder about this: What affect does mask wearing during this period of Covid-19 have on interpersonal communication?


The many cues in interpersonal communication


My colleague Patty Goodman has introduced the communication style tool developed by ICEdge into our introductory courses. And for a good reason. Research shows that “communication styles differ not only in terms of conversational directness/indirectness, but also in the degree to which communication is guided by attention to multiple contextual factors including relationships, time, and space” (ICEdge website, Research).

When we interact with others, we draw on a wide range of verbal and nonverbal clues. What happens when a mask covers much of the face, and we’re forced to rely on the expressions of someone’s eyes? Does wearing a mask reduce our ability to recognize emotions?


Do masks reduce our ability to discern emotion?


The research I’ve reviewed is intriguing, but inconclusive.

On the one hand, an experiment conducted Claus-Christian Carbon at University of Bamberg suggested a lower accuracy and lower confidence in the assessment of the displayed emotions. Most pronounced was the misinterpretation of disgust as anger.

In contrast, Ursula Hess, at the Humboldt University of Berlin, has found that a person’s ability to recognized emotion is not impaired by wearing a mask. In her study, observing the area around the eyes was usually enough to decipher someone else’s feelings. Confusion only occurred in distinguishing fear and surprise, when typically  our eyes open wide – and the mouth area becomes the differentiator.


Take the test!


How accurately do you interpret emotions when you rely only on someone’s eye expressions?

You may have heard of the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test developed by British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues.

Participants are asked to look at 36 pictures of the eye regions of men’s and women’s faces, each picture accompanied by four adjectives. The task is to choose the one word that best describes what the person in the picture is thinking or feeling. The premise is that we can recognize even subtle mental states by the changes in expression around the eyes.

Take a New York Times version of the test (link below) and ponder the results!

Posted by Carl Zangerl, Faculty


From the Reading List


Claus-Christian Carbon, September 25, 2020, Wearing  Face Masks Strongly Confuses Counterparts in Reading Emotions, Frontiers in Psychology.

Stella Marie Hombach, June 1, 2020, From behind the Coronavirus Mask, an Unseen Smile Can Still Be Heard, Scientific American.

New York Times, Can You Read People’s Emotions?, October 3, 2013.

Sally Olderbak, et al., October 6, 2015, A psychometric analysis of the reading the mind in the eyes test: toward a brief form for research and applied settings, Frontiers in Psychology.