No masking the fact that smiles hold the key to making a good first impression

The compulsory use of masks has shown how not being able to see facial expressions can hinder our ability to make first impressions of others, writes Madonna King

Jan 21, 2021, updated Jan 21, 2021

The human body has 600 muscles but the 17 between our nose and chin are among our most precious.

They make us smile, a gesture we sadly lost while being condemned to wearing face masks.

The fact that we all did is testament to a community working together, and a determination to assign this pandemic to history.

But the past couple of weeks in Brisbane has been a stunning social experiment in how we make first impressions – from deciding on dates to performance in job interviews.

It was my husband’s dimples – and a couple of good sauvignon blancs – that initially lured me out of a comfortable singles’ life, many years ago. And they still get him out of trouble, just as often as his teenagers dismiss his edicts, if he’s smiling.

This week, they disappeared, along with thousands of others. We couldn’t tell if people were smiling, and it seems such a little thing – but it really is such a big thing.

You smile to allow an L-plater in ahead of you at a roundabout. You smile to signal friendliness at the checkout queue. In lifts and in car parks, on walks and over the back fence, a silent smile can say so much.

It can calm a teenager. Acknowledge a good deed. Make a heart jump. It can mean “yes” and “good” and “thank you” and “sure” and “you’re welcome” and so many other positive things too.

This week, perhaps, is a lesson in just how precious that handful of muscles really are.

At Officeworks, children who might not yet know how to spell “smile” were wearing masks as they filled their baskets with pens and paper for a year of learning.

What will this week mean to them?

A pilates instructor saw a peek of that answer, perhaps, at a Mums and Bubs lesson she held on the same day.

Babies and toddlers were confused, watching a room of masked women exercise. They knew their mothers, of course, but their eyes carried the bewilderment that became a strange bedfellow for most of us last year.

Dr Megan Willis, a senior lecturer in psychology at the Australian Catholic University, supports the use of masks – as most reasonable people do.

But she says this experiment has shown how it can hinder our ability to make first impressions of others.

“People make first impressions incredibly quickly – in 30 milliseconds of seeing a face and there’s a great deal of consistency in how we make those first impressions,’’ she says.

We make positive impressions of those smiling, usually, and more negative impressions of those who are not. And when we don’t know someone, the facial expression is “the driving force in making first impressions’’.

Being able to see someone’s face, clearly, helps us make judgments about trustworthiness, approachability, dominance, whether someone is a threat, and whether we see them as attractive.

The mask hides the information we use to make those decisions. “It’s hard to know what those impacts will be,’’ Willis says. “If you can’t see someone’s mouth or nose you can’t really make a reliable judgement.’’

Of course, there is a flip side to the masked smile. People with social anxiety might cope better. Some young children, in a scary environment like a hospital, might even find it novel.

But the jury is out, as it is on so much during a new year that we hoped would deliver more.

For many, we’ve learnt to appreciate those simple pleasures and gestures – and hopefully, tomorrow, when we assign the masks to the bin, we’ll all be grinning like cheshire cats.

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