Dental News Archive

  • May 5, 2020

Losing face: overcoming mask disconnect



Dentists are acclimated to wearing face masks, comfortable with the necessity and the routine of various masks as part of various patient treatments. These days, we all must don masks when we go grocery shopping, head to Home Depot, take a bike ride in a nearby park.

For dentists, navigating this new landscape won’t be a big shift since it’s a part of their daytime office gear. For the rest of us, the world of masks is brand-new. And some of us are not making the switch so smoothly. Masks seem cloying, they hide smiles, they mask verbal cues, they hinder connection and understanding. But, as we are learning, masks are life-saving.

Throughout history, masks have decidedly not been life-saving; in fact people in masks were emphatically life-threatening. Robbers wore masks; executioners wore masks. It wasn’t until the advent of infection control understanding around the 1920s that the use of masks came to be recognized as vital to protect both doctor and patient. As we all adjust to this new COVID-19 accessory, doctors and patients alike should endeavor to overcome what masks can diminish or outright block. We must all remember that with masks over our mouths and noses, our communication is without the help of lip “gestures” and other facial cues that indicate approval or disapproval, understanding or confusion.

“Different levels of smiles lead to perceptions of warmth, competence, trustworthiness, attractiveness, etc.,” says Fan Liu, an assistant professor of decision sciences and marketing at Adelphi University in New York whose research focuses on nonverbal communication and who was recently interviewed by the Associated Press. “These perceptions and characteristics significantly influence our daily social lives.”

Liu has an insight that can resonate with dentists, particularly.

Nonverbal cues, she says in the AP interview, play a central role in communication that we don’t always realize. “When these cues are cut off, people are more likely to focus on outcome rather than process,” Liu says.

No doubt dentists have reflected of these unintended consequences of life behind the mask. But now that our landscape is changing to widespread – even compulsory – mask wearing, it’s necessary for all of us to take extra steps to communicate and break down the distance.

Some tips:

  • Slow down and ask if anything needs clarification
  • Use your voice to convey more expression than you typically would
  • Ask and listen carefully
  • Be sure there is ample eye contact and perhaps a comforting touch to the arm.

We need to adapt to our evolving “new normal;” communication shouldn’t be another pandemic victim.

CDS presents Front Desk, a column addressing issues facing dentists and staff members experience in the office.

Front Desk is prepared by Stephanie Sisk, Assistant Director of Communications for the Chicago Dental Society.

Photo by valentinrussanov /


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