Can You See Me Smile
Connecting While Wearing a Mask

By Kevin Sheerin

There is an old Chinese proverb that says “a man without a smiling face must never open a shop.” This is pretty sound advice. If you can’t smile and be friendly, then it’s probably not worth your while opening a shop. Pretty logical really. It’s the golden rule of customer service after all. We can all appreciate the value of a smile. It costs nothing to give but enriches those who receive it and is of the earthly good to anyone until it is given away. It is also one of the most powerful means of communication we have at our disposal, and we need no college degree to master its art.

Can you see me smileSo why am I writing about smiling? Well, probably because this is the one thing I am beginning to miss most in this new Covid world in which we are now living. It seems that the common social smile has become one of the casualties in our determination to halt the transmission of the virus. It has become collateral damage as mask wearing has taken over as the socially accepted norm. We communicate so much through our facial expressions, but now those vital expressions are hidden behind the masks we wear. As missionaries, one of the first challenges we encounter in arriving in a new country is to learn the language in order to make ourselves understood, which can be a long process. In the initial stages we rely mostly on the non-verbal communication that transcends all cultures – our facial expressions, particularly our smiles. It connects us to people. As the old saying goes, a smile speaks a thousand words and makes us feel at home, especially when that smile is returned to us.

When I arrived here in Hong Kong, although English is widely spoken, there are many who do not speak English or prefer not to, particularly among the homeless. As a person who smiles a lot, I found that although I could not connect to the local people by means of language, a shared smile made all the difference.

We can all appreciate the value of a smile. It costs nothing to give but enriches those who receive it and is of the earthly good to anyone until it is given away.

When you receive a smile, it does have a positive effect on you; it makes you feel good and brightens your day. We all know that when you are greeted with a scowl it causes negative reactions within you and leaves you feeling more irritable. That is why a simple smile is so important. You never know the impact it can have on a person and how it can change their day.

We are having to learn how to see the world through a mask, and it looks like it will be a regular aspect of our lives for the foreseeable future. When we first stated to wear masks here one of my colleagues jokingly asked me “can you see me smile?” And to be honest, no, I couldn’t, although I knew that beneath the mask she was. We now have to rely on the expression behind the eyes, as it is the only part of the face that we now see, unless they too are hidden behind sunglasses. Some people have expressive eyes, others, not so much.

When we don’t see a person’s face, then sometimes we don’t see the person. Everyone becomes the same, indistinguishable from each other. We become like zombies. We pass each other in the street without even a glance. Why bother smiling if no one can see you smile? I’ve asked myself that question on numerous occasions when I realize that despite smiling underneath my mask, no one can see it.

There is a risk of becoming desensitized and robotic in our daily interactions when we don’t see each other’s faces. The world is a sadder place when we can’t smile, and God knows we need something to cheer us up, now more than ever.

Research confirms how vital facial expressions are in human interactions, more so than verbal communication. One experiment carried out between a mother and her baby showed how joyful and happy the baby was once the mother made faces and smiled. When the mother was asked to just look at the baby with no expression on her face, immediately the baby became uncomfortable and began to cry and squirm.

We communicate so much through our facial expressions, but now those vital expressions are hidden behind the masks we wear.

In the business world, when giving presentations, it is not so much what you say but how you say it, that is via the non-verbal facial expressions the presenter uses. It can make or break a business deal.

It’s ironic that towards the end of last year, here in Hong Kong when the city was rocked with protests, laws were put forward to stop people from wearing masks. Now, with the pandemic, the opposite has become the norm, and everyone is now required to wear masks. We know how important wearing a mask is to the prevention of disease. No one is disputing that, but let us not use our masks to disguise who we are and lose that which makes us human.

We hope that, in time, this virus that arrived on the scene so unexpectedly will eventually lose its virulence, allow us to ditch the masks and get to see people smile again. Like everyone else, I pray that the lockdowns and restrictions end, that people can get back to work again, and socialize as they did before, but most of all I pray that we can see people smile once more.

But even beneath the mask, let’s not become like robots. Let’s continue to smile even if no one sees. Smile, and the world smiles with you!

Columban lay missionary Kevin Sheerin lives and works in Hong Kong