Nonverbal communication in the pandemic era

dvm360, dvm360 June 2021, Volume 56,

Adapting to the "new normal" brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way we not only interact with clients and patients, but with each other. Find out some nonverbal pearls to help connect to your colleagues through both digital and masked communication.

COVID-19 has drastically changed the way we communicate. From striking candid one-on-ones and group conversations among friends and colleagues to communicating through video calls, texts, cell phone calls, and emails and we have witnessed what seems to be a major shift overnight.

How do we adapt to this “new normal”? For centuries, most of our communication has been, and still involves, nonverbal interaction. We routinely use nonverbal communication to emphasize our viewpoints, complement words, and convey emotion. Nonverbal communication is so deeply rooted in everyday connections that we cannot separate ourselves from it.

What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication is comprised of facial expressions, body language, eye contact, special distance (proxemics), and touch, among other forms of expression, instead of words to convey a message.

In the COVID-19 era, fist bumps and elbow bumps have replaced handshakes and hugs. As the pandemic continues to push us to a more online and digital communication-oriented lifestyle, we are struggling to find substitutes for nonverbal communication in day-to-day life.

Masked communication

When we communicate with a mask or by video, text, email, or phone, we lose a critical component of communication that allows us to interpret nonverbal cues. Some of the previous forms of interaction are no longer practical, as our faces are now covered up during communication.

Adapting to the changes

In these evolving times, how do we adapt to the challenges of speaking and communicating while wearing a mask or sitting behind the screen of a technological device?

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some doctors began wearing badges on their scrubs that displayed their lively and cheerful pictures. Because the patients could not see the doctor’s face, the badges were a sign of reassurance. This was a simple gesture that helped ease the stress and anxiety of the patients.

Even though your facial expressions are not exposed when wearing a mask, there are other ways to convey feelings and gather insights, such as hand movements, body posture, and feet position. To ensure a complete communication experience, complement the body language with verbal communication. For example, make statements such as “I am happy to hear that,” “Wow, I am surprised!” or “This makes me so sad.”

Use the exposed region of the upper face, such as the eyebrows, eyes, and upper cheeks in your everyday communication. For example, closing the eyes and nodding can indicate agreement. Raising the eyebrows can express disapproval or opposition.

There are 2 types of eye actions that help clearly communicate emotions.

Squinted eyes

What might squinted eyes mean? They can convey feelings such as, “I don’t like what’s going on,” “Something doesn’t feel right,” or “I disagree with what you’re saying.”

Arched eyebrows

Arched eyebrows can mean several things such as, “I’m happy to see you!” “I’m pleasantly surprised,” or “That’s an intriguing point of view.”

If someone greets you with arched eyebrows (also called an “eyebrow flash”), it typically means they’re pleased to see you. This expression can also be used to show recognition when someone makes a good point in a conversation.

Maintaining good eye contact is also essential, as it shows that you are listening and paying attention. Use your eyes and eyebrows to express yourself. You can spot happiness in raised eyebrows, raised cheeks, and crow’s feet. Pinched eyebrows with drooping eyes can indicate sadness. Eyebrows in a “V” shape can express anger, annoyance, or frustration.

There are several other forms of nonverbal communication that you can tap into while wearing masks.

Touching the neck

Touching the neck can mean various things, such as, “I’m struggling with something,” “This situation is stressing me out,” or “I’m concerned about this situation.”

If someone is touching the visible indentation at the middle of their neck, it could mean they are distressed or insecure. Communicating with more empathy may offer comfort or ease their anxiety.

Tilted head

A tilted head can indicate interest and attentiveness. It can convey: “I’m interested in what’s going on,” “I’m listening and fully present,” or “I agree with what you’re saying.” Nod when appropriate, to acknowledge that you are listening and understanding.

Head movements can go a long way in showing whether someone is fully engaged in the conversation, especially during video conference calls. A slightly tilted head displays awareness and attentiveness. When combined with a few nods, it can indicate approval.

Talking loudly in quiet settings

Tone plays a highly essential role in communication. Clearly articulating your speech and increasing volume in a quiet environment can help overcome the sound muffling that results from wearing a face mask. In addition, make use of pauses when speaking. Proper pausing gives your listener the time to process the existing information before moving on to the next point.

Enunciate, hit your consonants, slow down, and be as clear as you can be.

Smile!

This is crucial to communication, even while wearing a mask. Just as a smile can be heard on the phone, a smile can be seen in your eyes. When you smile, laugh lines appear around your eyes and your cheekbones rise. If you don’t smile, you may come across as cold or angry.

Stay focused on the interaction

Be present in the moment. It’s easy to get distracted and assume others are not paying attention. Listening attentively and staying present can help overcome the barriers of communication when mouths cannot be seen.

Ultimately, in a mask-wearing world, we have to convey our thoughts and emotions clearly and empathetically. Practicing these communication tips will be beneficial today and even in the days after the masks are no longer required.

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