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Seeking Connection: Making connections through masks

David had a monumentally bad day at the hospital recently when a beloved long-time patient died.

Working in a hospital is tough on the best of days. The PPE is hot and uncomfortable, the staff is overworked and underpaid, and everyone is confused about how to do their job well because, in a post-COVID-19 world, policies change almost daily.

So when his patient passed, David went into the hall and sat down. He buried his head in his hands and took several long, deep breaths, trying not to cry. Crying when you are wearing glasses, an N95 and a face shield is not recommended. Everything gets fogged up and slippery, and you have to start the whole laborious gowning-up process from scratch.

One of his favorite doctors came by at that point. She didn’t ask what happened or if he was OK. Instead, she just squeezed his arm and smiled at him. Both wearing masks, he smiled back. Then she went on about her busy day.

He texted me that he loved me — he always does that when a patient dies — and he went on about his day too, buoyed and, if not exactly joyful, at least not despondent. 

Her compassionate connection was a lifeline, a sincere and simple gift that cost nothing and meant everything. She brought no agenda and no judgment. She really saw him and it helped.

We all want to feel seen. Feeling seen, heard and valued are basic human needs. Our ancestors knew the worst thing that could happen wasn’t death; the worst thing that could happen was being shunned from the group, cast out and ignored.

Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow taught that humans could not feel whole without a sense of belonging and connection. It’s the impetus behind social media, the #metoo movement, the millions of memes that begin I don’t know who needs to hear this but…

We want to be seen but most of us haven’t been taught how to be vulnerable enough to give (or receive) this sort of acknowledgment. So we overlook those around us, keep our head down and pretend we don’t see those who are disenfranchised or grieving or struggling. Then we feel isolated or resentful when humanity treats us in exactly the same way.

So how do we become a mirror to those we encounter so their value is reflected back to them? We look up from our phones and into other people’s eyes. Locking eyes is often all it takes to remind someone that their existence has not gone unnoticed.

I think about that doctor every time someone says wearing a mask when they go out means that other people will misinterpret their intentions. While it can sometimes be hard to hear what your masked friend is saying, it’s not that hard to see what they mean.

Eye contact activates the social brain, the neural regions that orchestrate our responses to other people. Making eye contact signals to others that they have our attention. It is one way we share intention and emotion, and it requires us to synchronize eye movements with someone else. 

The eyes of chimps, our closest relatives on the evolutionary ladder, will dilate and constrict involuntarily to convey empathy. Humans adapted this trait to strengthen our social bonds. We are even better than the apes now at distinguishing between what someone says and what they might really mean by looking at their eyes.

David didn’t need to see the doctor’s mouth to know she was smiling in empathy and compassion. In that short exchange, her eye blinks automatically synchronized with his and his nervous system responded by calming down. 

Humans are also very adept at differentiating between a real and a forced smile. That authenticity has nothing to do with the lips and everything to do with the eyes. Authentic smiles — also known as “smizing” or “the Duchenne smile” — use involuntary muscles that crinkle the edges of the eyes and are very hard to fake.

These skills aren’t effective though when looking through a screen (sorry, Zoom-lovers). The half-second delay in video conferencing alters our natural ability to “sync our blink” with others and makes it more difficult to differentiate between a courtesy smile and a smize. 

What if we use the wearing of a mask as an opportunity to hone these skills by truly looking at each other out in the real world? If I see you out, I’ll be sure to send a loving smize your way.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness” and the online host of the OM channel.