Masked Communications

May 11, 2020

Dr. Patrica Milford discusses the state of interpersonal communications when screens and masks are the norms.


The eyes, as the saying goes, are windows to the soul. 

But the view may be a little different these days, with masks and computer screens becoming a basic feature of our human interactions, says Dr. Patricia Milford, a professor in Cal U’s Department of Communication, Culture and Design. 

Take Zoom meetings. They burst onto the scene in March, as businesses, schools and families started using the video conferencing tool to stay connected. 

Learn more about Cal U's bachelor's degree in communication studies.

And they are wearing many of us out. 

A “tiring Zoom meetings” internet search yields 750,000 articles, many offering opinions about why they’re making us feel so much more exhausted than normal. A main reason: We are together in spirit but not body, and it taxes our brains to make sense of the situation. 

“Direct eye contact lowers the fight-or-flight response,” said Milford, who has taught public speaking courses at Cal U for 30 years. “If you have anxiety, it can help if you can hold direct eye contact with someone for 3 to 5 seconds, and then do the same to another person, and so on. 

“We feel safer when we can look at someone’s eyes.” 

Zoom makes this hard to do, Milford theorizes. 

“It’s a pretense of direct conversation,” she says. “If you look into your computer’s camera, you can’t see the person’s face, and if you look at the person’s face, then you aren’t looking in the camera. We’re responding to millisecond delays, and it means you’re not really making eye contact.” 

Zoom’s gallery view, which shows multiple participants simultaneously, may make matters even more stressful. 

“It’s like having a gang of people walking toward you, and you can’t make direct eye contact with anyone so that your primal brain can determine if they’re friend or foe.” 

The prevalence of masks as a protection against the spread of COVID-19 is another interpersonal curveball, Milford said. 

She related a recent experience. 

“I was in the grocery store, and I smiled at someone. But, of course, then I realized she couldn’t see that smile, so I nodded to her. If we continue wearing masks, we will find other ways to communicate — using our eyebrows or more exaggerated movements. 

“It will be similar to the way emojis have become a common way to add meaning to written communication.” 

The desire and need to communicate will hasten the adaptations, Milford said. 

“We use nonverbal gestures every day to smooth over our daily lives. We nod or we smile, and we learn to do these things as we engage with the people in our environment to reassure them that we mean them no harm. 

“We will find ways to adapt and remain socially interactive.”