< Masks

What are the effects of the mask on communication?

Text updated on 2021-02-07

The mask can make it difficult to identify facial emotions and decrease the volume of the voice. Fortunately, communication is a multi-sensory experience: it uses a large number of cues, such as intonation, gestures, posture, which effectively compensates for the effects of the mask!

Since the beginning of the health crisis, we have all become accustomed to wearing a mask during our travels, our work time, to do our shopping... What are the effects of this mask on our exchanges with others?

Does the mask, by hiding our face, hide our emotions?

The mask hides the lower half of our face, yet it is well known that we can detect some of the emotions of our interlocutor - joy, fear, surprise, disgust, anger, sadness - through the expressions on his or her face. What happens when we can no longer see his or her nose or mouth? Adult research shows that it is more difficult to recognize facial emotions in pictures of faces wearing a mask compared to the same faces without a mask. However, even if recognition is worse, it is still possible in more than 70% of cases. This effect is similar to the effect of sunglasses on emotion recognition in people who wear sunglasses.

Emotions are not only transmitted by facial expressions. They are also expressed by our posture, gestures, and voice. Work has shown that emotions are completely identifiable from the sound signal of the voice or posture even if no words are spoken, and no face is visible. In fact, we are quite capable of detecting the emotions of someone speaking on the radio, in a podcast or in a sound book!

Does the mask, by hiding our mouth, transform the voice signal? 

During a verbal exchange, we produce sound waves. Research indicates that the mask can reduce the transmission of these sound waves, with a loss of a few decibels depending on the type of mask used, mainly for frequencies above 4000 hz, which can affect the perception of certain consonants. However, it is important to know that masks are not the only tools in our daily lives that reduce the transmission of sound waves. Telephones use a frequency band that is narrower than that of the voice and are nevertheless used by a large number of people. The quality of sound waves transmitted via videoconferencing tools such as Zoom or Skype are not always optimal, yet they are used more and more often!

The mask hiding the mouth prevents lip-reading, which is essential for people with hearing loss, and which can also be used by some people depending on the conditions: you have to be close and well in front of the person to be able to perform lip-reading, which in everyday life is not so frequent if we are not hard of hearing.

In summary, the mask can make it more difficult to identify facial emotions and decrease the volume of the verbal message. But, fortunately, we have plenty of other clues to understand our interlocutor! Depending on the conditions, the understanding of a verbal message can be based on auditory information of the verbal content and tone of voice, visual information of facial expression, posture and gestures, but also on the circumstances of the exchange (we do not talk about the same subjects with a relative or with a stranger). In addition, many situations in everyday life illustrate our ability to understand speech without seeing the face, as on the radio or on the telephone, and to adapt to difficult conditions, for example in the presence of ambient noise, other voices, or white noise in the sound signal, as in a café, in a station or in a videoconference. Communication is such an important factor in the human species that it is a very distortion tolerant and robust system. Finally, we can always indicate misunderstood messages so that the speaker repeats or expresses himself more clearly.

In order to communicate well, especially with a person who may have difficulty understanding because of hearing problems or poor language skills, or with children because of their young age, it is important to be careful to articulate more clearly, speak at a satisfactory volume, and accentuate facial expressions when communicating while wearing a mask. Efforts to be made even when we do not wear a mask!

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In this study, 41 participants evaluated the emotional expressions displayed by 12 different faces. Each face was randomly presented with six different expressions (anger, disgust, fear, joy, neutrality, and sadness) while being fully visible or partially covered by a face mask. With the exception of the fear and neutral faces, for which ceiling performance effects were observed, the emotional states were more difficult to read on the masked faces than on the unmasked faces. Disgust is the emotion that is the most difficult to perceive with a mask. Recognition performance increased from 89.5% without a mask to 72.8% with a mask, showing that even with a mask recognition of emotions is still possible. A limitation of this study is that the recognition of emotions was tested on photographs and not videos, a situation that would be closer to a natural situation of everyday life.

Carbon, C. C. (2020). Wearing face masks strongly confused counterparts in reading emotions. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 2526.

The telephone only transmits frequencies between 300 and 3,400 Hz; however, the fundamental frequency (the frequency at which the vocal cords vibrate) of the human voice, which produces the pitch of the voice (tone), is of the order of : 85 to 180 Hz for men and 165 to 255 Hz for women. The fundamental frequency of the voice is therefore lower than the frequency band of the telephone. However, even if the voice is slightly distorted, we still manage to recognize the voice and perceive the tone of the speaker's voice. The perceived pitch does not always correspond to the lowest frequency of the spectrum. When the fundamental frequency is absent, we hear a "residual sound" that is not present in the physical signal.

Voice frequency (Wikipedia).

This study explores the perception of emotions produced by people who wear sunglasses or whose mouths are masked. The authors show that the performance of children aged 3-8 years in identifying emotions is not impacted by wearing sunglasses, whereas children aged 9-10 years and adults are less successful in identifying emotions on faces with sunglasses. Similarly, when the mouth is masked, the performance of 3-8 year olds in identifying emotions is not affected by the fact that the mouth is masked, whereas 9-10 year olds and adults are less able to identify emotions on faces with masked mouths.

Roberson, D., Kikutani, M., Döge, P., Whitaker, L., & Majid, A. (2012). Shades of emotion: What the addition of sunglasses or masks to faces reveals about the development of facial expression processing. Cognition, 125(2), 195-206.

The mask functions as a filter for the sound waves of the voice. The mask can attenuate the reception of high-frequency sounds, from 4 kHz, by 2.8 dB for a surgical mask and between 2.6-5.4 dB for an FFP2.

Corey, R. M., Jones, U., & Singer, A. C. (2020). Acoustic effects of medical, cloth, and transparent face masks on speech signals. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 148(4), 2371-2375.

Emotional signals in the voice without semantic content (vocalizations) are very well recognized and do not depend on our culture.

Sauter, D. A., Eisner, F., Ekman, P., & Scott, S. K. (2010). Cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions through nonverbal emotional vocalizations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(6), 2408-2412.

This study shows that emotion (sadness, joy, fear, disgust, surprise, anger) can be expressed through the individual's posture.

Coulson, M. (2004). Attributing emotion to static body postures: Recognition accuracy, confusions, and viewpoint dependence. Journal of nonverbal behavior, 28(2), 117-139.

Humans are ultra-social beings. In the course of evolution, a unique form of sociability has emerged in humans that partly explains the specificity of human cognition.

Tomasello, M. (2014). The ultra-social animal. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 44: 187-194.

Practical recommendations to reduce the effects of wearing a mask in a paediatric hospital.

Beck, M., Antle, B. J., Berlin, D., Granger, M., Meighan, K., Neilson, B. J., ... & Kaufman, M. (2004). Wearing masks in a pediatric hospital: developing practical guidelines. Canadian journal of public health= Revue canadienne de sante publique, 95(4), 256.

Further reading

Why put on a mask?

Where and when should I put on a mask?

Do I have to wear a mask if I don't have any symptoms?

COVID: Can a surgical mask be used more than once?

Why is it recommended not to wear a surgical mask for more than 4 hours?

How do I explain COVID-19 to children?

What are the physical effects of confinement and social distancing?

How do we find meaning in the new normal?