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Nonverbal Communication at South Shore Therapies

Nonverbal Communication While Wearing Face Coverings

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced many changes into our daily routines, one of them being the need to wear a mask to protect ourselves and others. With this new normal, you might be asking “how can my child read someone’s facial expressions if they can only see less than half of their peer’s face?”.  Let’s talk about some key areas to “zone in on” when identifying nonverbal communication while wearing a mask, as well as ways to teach nonverbal communication with a mask on.


Think about a time when you approached someone with a look of excitement on your face, ready to tell them some fantastic news. Most of the time, your conversation partner will ask “what is it!” before you even have a chance to share. Sometimes a simple look or gesture can communicate more than a string of words. This is known as Nonverbal Communication (click HERE to learn more). Facial expressions and body language can help us identify how a person is feeling or what they may be thinking. Some forms of nonverbal communication include tone of voice, eye contact, body posture, and body movement.

It is important to note that nonverbal communication is not universal. Many different cultures and religions interpret meaning of nonverbal cues differently.

1.     Body Language/Body Positioning

It’s important to read other’s body language because it sends us a message about how they feel! When we know how someone is feeling, we have a better idea of how to act. Everyday Speech, a social learning platform teaches the following steps when learning how to observe body language:

  1. Be a good observer: using our eyes to look or read someone’s body language
    • Body position: did the person you are taking to lean in, or move away? Were their shoulders slumped, or standing up straight?
    • Arms and hands: are your conversation partners arms/hands crossed, open or relaxed at their sides?
    • Eyes: are your conversation partners eyes looking at you, or wondering elsewhere?
    • Facial expression: focus on your conversation partners eyes and eyebrows, do they look happy and interested? Or bored?
  2. Decide how to act:
    • If your conversation partner is turned away with their arms crossed or looking around the room, this probably means they are bored or disinterested. You should probably change the topic or end the conversation.
    • If your conversation partner is turned towards you, nodding and making eye contact, they are interested! You should keep talking and engaging with that person.

2.     Eyes

Eye gaze can tell you a lot about how someone is feeling. We use eye gaze to gain and redirect attention and maintaining eye gaze can help show another person that you are interested when having a conversation. Additionally, the direction in which someone is looking can help identify what they are thinking about. “Thinking with Your Eyes”, a Social Thinking concept created by Michelle Garcia Winner, allows us to use our eyes to make smart guesses about others’ thoughts, feelings and plans based on what’s going on in a specific situation. Click HERE to listen to Michelle Garcia Winner’s free Thinking with Your Eyes webinar, part of a series of 10 Core Concepts.

Looking at someone’s eyes can reveal different information depending on how they look.

  • If someone’s eyes are filled with tears, it typically means they are feeling sad
  • If someone’s eyes are looking down, they may be experiencing fear, anxiety, fatigue or boredom
  • If someone’s eyes are looking up, they may be distracted, confused, or thinking
  • If someone’s eyes are open wide, they may be scared, shocked, surprised or excited

We typically pair eye gaze with body orientation. If someone is interested in a conversation, both their eyes and body should be facing their communication partner. If someone is feeling upset, they might be looking down and crying, their body might be slouched, and their shoulders might be turning inwards.

3.     Eyebrows

In addition to our eyes, movement of the eyebrows can tell a lot about how someone is feeling. Some people raise their eyebrows to express surprise or exaggeration. Your eyebrows may furrow (lower and move inwards) when you are confused or focused. You may also see someone’s eyebrows lower when they are feeling anxious, disappointed or upset. Sometimes one of our eyebrows stays at rest while the other one raises! Pairing the shape and direction of our eyes with movement of the eyebrows and body language can help provide a big picture of how someone is feeling.

4.     Tone of Voice

Our feelings and emotions impact the way our voice sounds, or the emphasis placed on our words or phrases, otherwise known as tone of voice. Looking at someone’s facial expressions in addition to listening to their tone of voice is a helpful strategy for appropriately interpreting nonverbal communication. Tone of voice is sometimes considered even more important than the words that someone speaks. Someone can say the kindest words, but if they use a negative tone, their meaning may be misconstrued. Teaching children to match their tone to the words that speak is critical. Badger State Speechy breaks down tone of voice into three groups:

  1. Emotional Tone: the emotion connected with the sound of our voice (e.g., angry, calm, excited)
  2. Sarcasm: the tone that is used when a joke is made with the intent of making someone feel badly. Sarcasm should be used with caution, depending on who you are talking to, as it can sometimes be misinterpreted.
  3. Formal and Informal Tone: someone might use a formal, or polite tone of voice when attending a job interview, meeting a new teacher, or going to a formal dinner. An informal tone is considered more “casual” and is used when we are talking to those that we are comfortable around, such as friends or family.

The best way to teach tone of voice to children who have difficulty interpreting nonverbal communication is by having them practice using and listening to different tones themselves. Turn it into a guessing game-- Give your child a phrase to say in a certain tone and see if others can guess the tone being used. Then switch roles and have your child guess your tone of voice. Have your child wear a mask when participating in this game, to encourage them to focus their attention on the eyes, eyebrows and body positioning.

In conclusion, there are many ways to read identify nonverbal communication while wearing face coverings. Encouraging your child to focus their attention on someone’s body language, eyes and eyebrows, and listening for their tone of voice can provide them with a key set of clues to use in determining how someone feels. For related games, activities and crafts to help your child learn about nonverbal communication, click HERE.  

We hope you found this post helpful. Click HERE to learn more about what services and supports South Shore Therapies has to offer. Results that make a difference.


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