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How to Understand Social and Emotional Cues When a Person is Wearing a Mask

By Ruth Swartwood, Fraser Clinical Site Manager and Gina Gibson, Fraser Sensory Inclusion Specialist • social cues, interpreting social cues, learning to interpret social cues when wearing a mask, using body language to interpret social cues, developing social skills • August 27, 2020

Wearing a mask outside your home is an adjustment for everyone. In addition to physical discomfort, masks can also create emotional discomfort because masks make it difficult to gauge whether the person you’re talking to is smiling or frowning.

Nonverbal cues help us understand the meaning behind what someone says. For example, if someone says, “You’re so silly!” with a smile, he or she is likely gently teasing you. But if a person says, “You’re so silly” with a frown, he or she is probably giving you a cue that you should be less silly.

So while you can hear what a person is saying when they are wearing a mask, reading their nonverbal communication cues is trickier when half of their face is hidden behind a mask. For individuals with autism, interpreting nonverbal communication can be particularly difficult.

Here are three ways to decipher what people really mean when they’re wearing a mask.  

Look at their eyes

One nonverbal way people communicate is through their eyes. Are the eyes of the person you’re talking to big and bright? That likely means the person is excited about what you’re discussing.

Is the speaker making clear and consistent eye contact? This is also a positive sign that your conversation is going well. If his or her eyes are looking away and showing little excitement or energy, that might mean that the person is uncomfortable or less than excited about what you’re saying.

However, if you’re talking to someone with autism, it’s important to understand that he or she may not make eye contact. Every individual with autism is different, but difficulty with eye contact is common. So avoiding your eyes doesn’t necessarily indicate they aren’t engaged in the conversation.

Observe body language

You can also look at a person’s gestures. A person who is using hands and arms to communicate with you is generally engaged in a conversation. But if the same person has arms crossed over his or her body, he or she may be indicating a lack of interest in what you’re communicating.

You can also observe the way their body is pointed. Is their body directed toward you, showing interest in the conversation? If their body is facing away from you, it may indicate disinterest.

Again, this may be different if the person you’re speaking with is neurodivergent. People with autism might turn their bodies away from you when you talk, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are uninterested in what you’re saying.

Ask them

Individuals with autism tend to process information differently, so interpreting meaning can be particularly hard. If you’re unsure about what a person means, you can always ask. You can say something like, “You said I’m silly. With your mask on, I’m not sure if you’re enjoying my silliness, or want me to stop. Can you clarify which is the case?” Most people will appreciate your honesty, and then you will know for sure what they are trying to say.

It can also be harder to hear what a person with a mask is saying. You may have to speak louder so the other person can understand you. The other person might also raise his or her voice so you can hear them better. That doesn’t mean the person is mad at you; he or she is just speaking louder so you can understand through the mask.

Wearing a mask disrupts your ability to see another’s facial expressions, but it doesn’t have to limit your ability to communicate clearly. Using these suggestions should help clear up any potential misunderstanding.