I had to run to the grocery store the other day to pick up a couple of things.
Watching the cashier behind her protective plastic partition, ringing up my loaf of bread and a couple of bottles of seltzer, I was hit with this surge of gratitude. No, she wasn't a doctor or nurse in a COVID ward, but she was certainly exposing herself to a lot more risk every day than I do.
I wanted to express my thanks, make sure she knew how deeply I appreciated her essential service. So, I locked eyes with her, and smiled – the warmest, widest smile I could muster.
She looked at me blankly and didn't say a word. It was almost as if she hadn't seen my smile at all.
I was leaving the store when it hit me: of course she hadn't seen my smile! My mask had concealed my gratitude.
For the rest of the day, with every interaction I had with someone I didn't know – the gas station attendant, the kid behind the take-out counter – I made sure to tell them how thankful I was, my words replacing the smiles they couldn't see.
But still, something was missing.
Smiles are the grease for our interpersonal communications, our most efficient way to signal warmth, safety, empathy, compassion, or – at the grocery store – gratitude … a non-verbal supplement to expand the limits of what words alone can express.
Studies have shown smiles are actually contagious. They lift the mood of both the source and the target of the smile. And now, COVID has robbed us of this critically-important tool we use to connect with each other.
We've been sad before as a country, living without smiles for a time in the aftermath of assassinations, terror attacks, school shootings. But this is different. Wearing masks is a structural change in the way we live. COVID has literally wiped the smiles from our faces.
So, keep this in mind as you go about your business, for now our words are all we've got. Not just the ones we choose, but how we deliver them. From behind a mask, tone and inflection are the new smiles. Forget the face-to-face world. In a mask-to-mask world, the golden rule is that people can't feel what they can't see.
Let's all be part of the solution, and find other ways to smile at each other.