There are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world today and I speak only one of them. Despite this shortcoming I am an excellent communicator--and no, I didn’t invent a universal translator. Rather, I am empathetic and smile at everyone, so much so that strangers often feel inclined to tell me their life story without any prompting. Many people think I look familiar to them, like someone they once knew, a cousin or a neighbor. It’s a blessing and a curse, but I do enjoy exchanging smiles with people I encounter. I enjoy passing goodwill to strangers without them even realizing it. Jerry Seinfeld recounts how, as a kid, he would go with his father on sales calls and his father would say to him “Watch this, I’m going to crack that face”, meaning he would get a smile or a laugh. The human face is able to communicate countless emotions without saying a word and the emotions shared through facial expressions are universal. Proof of that is how the same emojis are used the world over and everyone understands what they mean.
As an attorney I have also trained myself to recognize micro expressions--brief, involuntary facial expressions that occur when a person is consciously trying to conceal their feelings. Unlike regular facial expressions, they are almost impossible to hide. In a new study, researchers defined 21 facial expressions used to convey our emotions and found a computer model could tell them apart with a high degree of accuracy. In fact, one of the first skills an infant learns is recognizing facial expressions. By the time infants are five months old, they can match the image of an emotional expression with its corresponding vocal expressions. By age five, a child’s ability to recognize and label facial expressions approaches the competence of most adults.
Now, all of that’s out the window. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then we’re in luck because, with the whole world peering out from behind face masks, the only visible part of our face is our eyes. I feel so disoriented, like Ariel the mermaid losing her voice. After decades of communicating with my face I am at a loss. It hardly matters at the moment since I rarely leave the house, but I have to adjust because I plan to wear a mask in public for the foreseeable future. The bottom line is I’m still friendly, and caring, and interested in you. You may not notice it as quickly as before but if you take the time and look carefully you’ll see that I’m smiling with my eyes.