We haven't seen people's faces in a year. Here's what that's done to us

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The pandemic has made me a lot more socially unsure than I used to be. Because I can’t see all of peoples’ faces and they can’t see mine, sometimes I feel alone even when I’m not. Last week, for example, when I was at a masked, outdoor Mardi Gras hang, I felt uncomfortable talking to anyone I don’t already know and I’m pretty sure it was obvious. I know everyone's a little out of social practice, so most people will forgive some awkwardness. But it feels like a year without much face-to-face interaction has tampered with my ability to connect.

For the past year, communication with anyone outside our pod has only happened — for us responsible people — through Zoom or with half our faces covered by a mask. Now that we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I’m wondering about what we lost, emotionally, with all that face-less communication. Because, in fact, seeing faces is crucial to our development. “From early in our human development, we are hardwired to focus on faces,” Tara Well, a professor of psychology at Barnard and Columbia Universities, tells me. “Looking at other people’s faces — usually a caregiver — is one of the ways that we learn to regulate our emotions.”

Examples of this come really early in life. Think, for example, of a crying infant. If that sad baby’s tears are met with indifference, disgust, or distraction, they will learn that crying is not an appropriate way to express emotion. Conversely, if a crying baby’s tears are met with kindness and compassion, they will learn that crying is okay and will be met with care. One of the most important ways we learn what feelings it’s “okay” to have and when it’s acceptable to have them, then, is by the reflections we see in other people, Well explains.

Face-to-face interaction is also an important way that we learn to have a sense of self, Well explains. We learn about ourselves when we are able to be our most authentic selves with people who see us, quite literally. This is part of what it means to be a social animal — we become the people we are, in part, based on how other people behave and on how other people respond to how we behave. If, as we grow, authentic expressions of who we are tend to be met with kind faces and accepting eyes, we get comfortable expressing ourselves authentically.

This social mirroring is critical to our development, but it’s also how we establish and maintain social bonds as adults. This process works both ways, meaning that not only does mirroring help us connect to each other, we mirror people to show connection. Recent research suggests that we are more likely to mirror — or mimic — the expressions and postures of people we feel bonded to. So, one of the reasons the lack of in person contact we’ve all experienced in the past year is affecting our social skills is that we have lost so many opportunities to both create connections and to show people that we feel close to them through mirroring. “When we are in isolation, we miss this face-to-face contact in real time and can become socially awkward as a result,” says Well. The reason is twofold.

A myriad of recent articles have touched on the frustration we feel with all the digital interactions, since they lack the rich emotional depth of in person exchanges. And so many others have justifiably predicted that we’re going to be socially awkward when things are back to “normal.” At the core of all this, I imagine, is the lack of experiencing whole faces and all the small (and not-so-small) cues that they provide. “We look to others from affirmation that we are okay — they give us this feedback subtly usually through nonverbals like body posture, facial expressions, and vocal intonations,” Well says. “On Zoom, we have to adjust to a limited amount of this information.”

But another part of our frustration lies in the fact that we are getting too much of one kind of visual stimuli, which can complicate social exchanges. “On video, you can tell immediately if someone is not paying attention to you or doesn’t seem to be responding well to what you’re saying,” says Well. When you’re staring at people in digital video boxes, your body isn’t also being asked to interpret your surroundings, or the context of the interaction, like a meeting with other people in a real place would require.

Your brain naturally tunes in to what you can see, and unfortunately, all you can see is a face that seems to be responding only to you. That’s not usually the whole story. Your boss could be wrinkling their nose at the litterbox their cat just pooped in or at someone else in a Zoom room — but because your brain is trained to interpret faces and uses those interpretations for important reasons, it focuses all its attention on that task. Virtual group social interactions can be confusing and alienating, then, because there’s too much information for our brains to process and not enough context to process it in, Well explains.

The other issue is that we can also see ourselves in digital social settings, which we can’t usually do in the “real world.” “Awkwardness and social anxiety can come from focusing on ourselves and how we look to others.” Well recommends what she calls “Mirror Meditation,” as a way to cultivate compassion for ourselves. Mirror meditation consists of looking at yourself in the mirror, focusing on your breathing, and trying to cultivate compassionate — instead of critical — feelings towards your own image. “This way, you learn to associate the feeling of relaxation with looking at yourself.” You can learn to regulate your emotional state by observing how you are feeling and mirroring back acceptance, Well explains.

Perhaps mirror meditation can help us all with digital alienation by giving us a way to emotionally regulate in the virtual spaces we inhabit. But I also suspect it may assist us in situations in which we can see peoples whole faces. It’s okay to rely on others for feedback and connection, but coming into any exchange with more self-love could make us less reliant on others for our sense of self worth and it follows that if we are reflecting self love into the world, everyone who comes into contact with us will benefit.

Well recommended mirror meditation before the pandemic, but now she thinks it’s even more important. “You could become one of the people that you love to hang out with,” Well says. And maybe someone that others can use as a mirror for self-acceptance. If we use this prolonged alone time a lot of us have now to learn how to give ourselves some of the acceptance we crave, it could make a big difference in our interactions later.

We may still feel awkward when we go back into the world of other people, but if we learn to gaze upon our own reflections with acceptance and care, then maybe we will be able to act as self-love mirrors for other people once we can see each other in all our full-faced glory once again.