Can Smiling End The Achievement Plateau?
It can't hurt :)
A few weeks ago I was boarding flight. When I went to hand the gate attendant my boarding pass, she waived me off. Instead, I she asked that remove my mask and stare into a camera that somehow knew I was Rob Berretta, 27C.
It turns out our faces contain a lot of critical information, information which can unlock our iPhones, free us from the burden of carrying around tiny slips of paper in the airport, and potentially improve staff culture.
Last Thursday, one of my staff members commented in a meeting, “Yesterday just felt so light and positive.” Huh? I’ve written before about how challenging this year has been for staff, and so I was surprised. “Did something happen yesterday?” I asked.
It turns out something did happen: we became “mask optional.” For the first time all year, we could see almost everyone’s faces almost all the time.
I said on my first-ever podcast appearance (give it a listen!) last week that I’ve had to mediate more interpersonal conflicts among staff members than ever before. Those conflicts left staff feeling hurt — which I’m sure impacted their productivity — and left me busy trying to resolve them — which I know impacted my productivity.
I had been ascribing that increase in conflict to the general frustrations we’ve experienced this year — crowding, coverages, understaffing, etc — and the unfortunate truth is we experience those almost every year. I started to wonder if some of those conflicts could be traced to staff misreading each other’s emotions.
Nonverbal communication can comprise almost 2/3 of human conversation. We say a lot with our smiles. According to Fred E. Jandt, author of multiple textbooks on intercultural communication, the smile is the most universally-accepted mode of communication happiness or joy.
When we were remote, we could see each other’s faces with more detail. Perhaps more detail than ever before, as front-facing HD cameras and circle lights have so deftly exposed every imperfection on my aging face. Masks, though, have been covering one of the most important communication signals we have — our mouths — for almost the entirety of our return to in-person learning.
This study from researchers at Duke suggests that our ability to recognize facial emotions doesn’t fully mature until adulthood. Reading faces is challenging. Perhaps that’s why it took Apple until just recently to update its iPhone software so we can unlock our phones with our masks on.
It has to be the case that this contributed to the dampened morale across educators. Limiting our ability to read nonverbal communication, particularly communication that can indicate someone’s joy, anger, or sadness, means our verbal communication is prone to misinterpretation. And misinterpretation leads to miscommunication which often leads to conflict.
This is not an indictment of mask mandates. The CDC released a study that seems to quantitatively confirm what I have qualitatively observed: masks helped keep students and staff from getting sick. And that was really, really important. I wouldn’t have changed it. And I’m still glad they’re gone.
In typical year, I know the name of every student in my building and greet them, by name, when they walk in the building. This year, not so much. It’s almost as if my brain can’t read enough information from their faces to help attach meaning to their names. The masks also made it more difficult to know exactly what their eyes are telling me as they enter. And for me to smile at them.
As a result, I only know the names of maybe 60% of the students. But I’ve still got 3 months left to get them all. I may not be the fancy (creepy?) facial recognition software that American Airlines uses, but I plan on unleashing a lot of smiles over the next 60 days.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.