In its February 20, 2020 edition, The Economist published an article entitled, “Do not rely on Facial expressions for how people are feeling.” Noting that both Aristotle and Cicero believed that “…the face was a window onto a person’s mind”, the authors commented that more than 2000 years later, we still believe this to be true. (Id.)

More specifically, we take a smile to mean someone is happy while a frown indicates that someone is sad. (Id.) But an analysis of hundreds of research papers on this topic- facial expressions vis a vis our underlying emotions- reveal that such universal beliefs may not be true. Across different cultures, there is no universal truth that a lack of a smile means someone is not happy. (Id. at 2.)

A recent study published in Psychological Science In the Public Interest by Lisa Feldman Barrett and others revealed that “… on average adults in urban cultures scowled when they were angry 30% of the time. Which means that some 70% of the time they did not scowl when angry.” (Id. at 2.) Rather, they may have scowled because they were concentrating, or after hearing a bad joke, or feeling unwell. (Id. at 2.)

The researchers found that this lack of a clear-cut indication was true for the other emotions as well: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. (Id. at 2.)

If this is true in a face to face meeting, how much more unreliable is our intuitive reading of body language in a video conference? Thanks to the pandemic, virtual meetings over a video conferencing application is now the only way to get together. (Unless you meet mask to mask six feet away. Then you really will not be able to read facial expressions!

A recent article, “The Reason Zoom drains your energy” by Manyu Jiang (April 22,2020 ), notes:

Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat, says Petriglieri. Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” he says.(Id.)

Silence is another challenge, he adds. “Silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you became anxious about the technology.” It also makes people uncomfortable. One 2014 study by German academics showed that delays on phone or conferencing systems shaped our views of people negatively: even delays of 1.2 seconds made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused. (Id. at 2.)

And added to this is the fact that we ARE on camera: we are being watched and are no doubt self-conscious- either consciously or unconsciously- about our appearance including our facial expressions. (Id.)

It is often noted that 55% of our communication is through our body language, while 38% is through the tone of our voice and 7% is through our actual words. (Psychology Today ). If this is so in a face to face (mask to mask?) meeting, I wonder how much less so this in the age of our virtual meetings is. I have the sneaking suspicion that reading body language has just gotten a lot more difficult.

… Just something to think about.


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