Missing People’s Faces

The face is the mirror of the mind, and the eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart.

St. Jerome

I haven’t been out and about much in the past month due to a case of Omicron. Uninvited, it decided to hang around with a few long Covid symptoms, which have kept me hunkered down at home. Thanks to a steroid prescription, today I had the thrill of running a couple of errands, including going to the grocery, (sad, isn’t it?) It occurred to me by the time I arrived at the grocery that nearly everyone had their faces covered with masks, again. I miss people’s faces.

smiling woman with black hair
Photo by Ivan Samkov

What’s In A Face?

In 1965, clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman began studying non-verbal communication in his clients. Some of his clients had lied to him about their true emotional state, telling him they weren’t depressed then later committing suicide. Perplexed, Ekman, who had filmed the sessions, poured over the sessions in slow motion and discovered micro-expressions. These revealed strong, negative emotions the clients had hidden, but Ekman had missed.

As a result, Ekman’s research lead to the study of universal expressions, which he discovered by visiting an isolated tribe in Papua, New Guinea. At the time, Ekman found that there were 7 universal expressions:

  • Anger
  • Contempt
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Surprise

In addition, research from 2020 suggested that we may share 16 universal complex expressions.

  • Amusement
  • Anger
  • Awe
  • Concentration
  • Confusion
  • Contempt
  • Contentment
  • Desire
  • Disappointment
  • Doubt
  • Elation
  • Interest
  • Pain
  • Sadness
  • Surprise
  • Triumph

What does all this mean for you and me?

Life Without Facial Expressions

woman in a beige blazer wearing a red face mask
Photo by Mikhail Nilov

The importance of nonverbal communication (NVC) and nonverbal behavior (NVB) are indisputable and there’s a vast amount of information that we can glean about individuals from them. But while all channels of nonverbal behavior are important, the most important is the face, and for good reason: the face is the most complex nonverbal signal system in the body, and it is used to express many different kinds of mental states.

Dr. David Matsumoto

Consequently, having had to cover our faces for the past two years, we have lost the benefit of facial expressions in our society. Furthermore, Dr. Matsumoto says that facial expressions are the window of our emotions. Without the benefit of seeing faces, we lose a large piece of knowledge and communication with each other.

Additional reasons why facial expressions are important are following:

  1. Facial expressions of emotion are probably the most important signal of the face because they tell us about people’s personalities, emotions, motivations, or intent.
  2. They are signals to others to act in certain ways, providing messages for social coordination.
  3. They are important signals of socialization and enculturation.
parents looking at their baby
Photo by nappy

Children and Faces

Surprisingly, newborns show a distinct preference for the faces of their mothers, only hours after they are born. Furthermore, within a few days, they will learn to discriminate between different facial expressions, like happy, sad or surprised faces. By their fifth month, babies can match an emotional expression (i.e., a sad face) with its vocal expression (i.e., a sad voice). In addition, during the last half of the first year, babies take many cues from the faces around them, primarily the faces of their mothers to determine what is safe for them to explore.

Faces and their expressions are vitally important to early learning for infants and children.

In fact, a study by Brown University scientists found that social distancing measures including face masks are suspected of causing young children’s development to have dropped by up to 23 per cent during the COVID pandemic. Their overall IQ, verbal skills, non-verbal skills, and motor skills were significantly reduced compared to pre-pandemic scores from 2019.

In addition, the report adds, ‘masks worn in public settings and in school or daycare settings may impact a range of early developing skills, such as attachment, facial processing, and socioemotional processing…They explained: ‘Comparing yearly mean scores since 2011, controlling for age, gender, demographic, and socioeconomic indicators, we find striking evidence of declining overall cognitive functioning in children beginning in 2020 and continuing through 2021

Due to space, I’m not going to address the reading challenges for kindergartners and first grade teachers. However, here are some good tips I discovered by a teacher if you need some assistance with your child.

woman in white top holding a smartphone
Photo by Anna Tarazevich

Our Faces and Our Souls

So, again…What is in a face?

Vast resources…a lifetime, a moment, waves of emotions, a thought, communication, signals, and much more. Yet, for 2 years we have, in most places, lived anonymously behind masks. Sacrificing individual identity and communication for a form of perceived safety, (scientists continue to differ on this,) which has gradually desensitized us toward one another. With our faces covered, it is easier to be strangers with each other.

Consequently, ongoing isolation has hardened our souls. Many have turned to social media instead of face-to-face people to fill the empty space in our lives that friends and friend groups once occupied. There, we can continue to be anonymous, hidden, but is that what is best for us when loneliness continues to rival Covid-19 as an epidemic?

What can be done to awaken a people from this mental and emotional lethargy?

stylish women in sunglasses
Photo by Anna Shvets

Friends With Faces

In 2012, Harvard researcher Robert Putman made an astonishing discovery about church friends…not just any friends – church friends. The purpose of his study was to confirm his previous work regarding what he termed religiosity and altruistic behavior. Putman had already discovered that religious people were more kind, more giving, and selfless, but he hadn’t understood why. Consequently, his 2012 research affirmed his previous study, but also answered his question.

Putman explored several factors that may have given reason for what he termed healthy neighborliness, such as denominal tradition or intensity of beliefs. In fact, there was only a single factor that Putman could find that accounted for the correlation between altruistic behavior and religion.

The answer was church friends.

That’s right…church friends account for religious people being more kind, giving, and selfless in the community.

It was only when we turned to measures of involvement in one‘s own religious congregation that the explanatory fog began to clear, for people with more close friends at church, or more involvement in small groups at church, or more discussion of religion with friends and family—what we generically termed ―church friends—were systematically more altruistic than other Americans. Moreover, this strong correlation between altruism and church friends persists robustly even under stringent controls for other factors—including the respondent‘s number of close friends in general. Having more friends is associated with altruism, but church friends matter a lot, even beyond that fact; church friends seem super-charged.

Robert Putman

A Harvard researcher saw the value of church fellowship, but God already knew how much we need each other. I wonder why we ever imagined we could go solo through life?

The Face of God

Another compelling reason we need to see the faces of others is that truly, in them we find the face of God. Of course, Scripture has revealed that no one has seen God’s literal face, although Moses saw His back. Yet Jesus said that when we reach out to help or serve another person, in kingdom reality, we are serving Him.

Therefore, when looking into the faces of people around us, acknowledging their presence with a smile, reaching out to meet a need they have, (even something seemingly small,) is the same as gazing into the face of God. It’s the same as smiling at Jesus or fixing Him a needed meal.

I will not hide My face from them any longer, for I will have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,” declares the Lord God.

Source: https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/Ezekiel/39/29

By the grace and mercy of God through Christ, we have the opportunity to see His face through the Bible, in prayer…

and in those we meet each day.

I'm interested in what you think!