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Masks force people to adapt and rely more on eyes & body language, expert says

Adapting during the pandemic: Body language
Bill Whiting sports a whimsical mask with red lips while talking to News 13 in downtown Asheville. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

For much of 2020, we've been engaged in a national cover-up in the form of face masks. The vital accessories for public health have altered the way we communicate, says a local body language expert.

"The one thing that I've been thinking about a lot is how adaptable human beings are," Lavinia Plonka of Asheville Movement Center said. "And how quickly we figure out how to use ourselves in the circumstances that we're in."

"Even though people don't see our mouths, they're still learning things from, not just our eyes, but our bodies as well," she said.

News 13 asked a few folks in downtown Asheville about the challenges that come with wearing a face covering.

"I think the main thing is trying to make sure people understand you," said Bill Whiting, who was wearing a whimsical mask with red lips.

He believes wearing a mask is the right thing to do and that it's not just lip service.

"I just wanted to add a little lightness to things," he said. "Make sure people know that I do smile at them even though they can't see me do it."

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Even if you don't have an expression printed on your mask, emotions are written all over more than just your face. The pandemic has unmasked our reliance on body language.

Downtown, News 13 met Inge Nunn and Denise Masters, who have both noticed some nonverbal cues are easier to read than others.

"And you see that I'm very expressive with my hands. So you see the body language that I'm open to your questions," Nunn told News 13.

"It's hard to identify feelings," Masters noted. "As a social worker it's much harder to do my job with the mask, because we read facial expressions."

Plonka gladly agreed to some FaceTime, to show News 13 the range of emotions we convey without saying a word.

"The eyebrows indicate also what your thought process is. If I kind of just raise one eyebrow, kind of looks like I'm in judgement of you," Plonka demonstrated.

She's a former mime-turned-body language expert.

"That's how this all began, this whole search into body language and everything," she said.

"So I think what's gonna happen actually, if we're stuck in masks, is we're gonna get much more animated in this part of our faces in order to be able to communicate what we want," Plonka predicted.

She's posted about the "windows to the soul" on her YouTube page. Plonka says our eyeballs, eyelids and eyebrows help us fill in the communication gaps. The expert says we also adapt by using our hands more to get our point across.

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"The pupil starts telling people how interested I am, how focused I am, and then our iris reflects our emotional state in a different kind of way," she explained.

Whether we're aware of it or not, our body language speaks volumes.

"When the people look at your eyes, you are basically showing them a picture of you-- who you are," Nunn says.

"And at the end, it's the respectful thing to do and maybe it makes us a bit closer in some ways," Whiting added.

"And that to me is really interesting that we start forgetting that we're actually wearing this, and thinking that people can actually still get what we're feeling in this part of our face," Plonka said.

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