The ‘eyes’ have it: How to read facial expressions when they are obscured by a mask

November 24, 2020

In a recent study, commissioned by York, England-based Vision Direct, fully 76 % of Brits struggled to read the moods of others who were wearing protective face coverings—with more than half misinterpreting their conversational partner’s expressions and feelings completely.

Indeed, the survey of 2,000 Brits—conducted on behalf of Vision Direct by OnePoll—found that:

  • More than two-thirds of adults struggle to see how someone is feeling when they have a mask on;
  • More than 60% of adults admit to misunderstanding what someone was saying when they had a mask on, with 42% putting this down to not being able to see their lips.
  • About 70% now are consciously trying to look at people’s eyes to guess what expression they are hiding behind the mask.

Now, UK-based body language expert and TV personality Judi James has revealed her top tips—and not surprisingly, it is all in the eyes, SWNS Digital reports.

James says, “The human animal has always depended on facial expression as a way of social and workplace communication and, over the years, the key focus has been the mouth. We have come to depend on this widening of the lips as a rapport-building social shorthand, which is why the wearing of face masks has caused worries in terms of closing down our ability to communicate.

“The good news,” she notes, “is that our eyes are more than capable of taking over the job of transmitting and reading non-verbal signals, in fact one of the reasons we tend to direct attention to our mouths is that our eyes are such strong (and more honest) conveyors of moods and emotions.”

She indicates a genuine-looking eye-smile should involve some wrinkling at the corners and the rounding of the cheeks.

An “eye-flash”—during which the eyes narrow in the eye-smile but the brows pop up and down again in one rapid movement—can signify that someone is flirting and “likes what they see.”

While a rounding of the eyes suggests shared excitement and those who are in love will have dilated pupils—giving true meaning to the ‘look of love’.

But not all eye-signs are indicators of happy: As James points out, there are tell-tale signs of someone feeling disgusted or angry. To recognize disgust on the face of someone wearing a mask, you should look out for a puckered frown, narrowed eye shape, and a wrinkling of the skin at the bridge of the nose.

Similarly, anger is typically displayed with knitted brows that come as low as possible over the eyes, plus a hard eye-stare with the eyes slightly rounded. The head would be tilted slightly forward too.

What’s more, James cautions that reading other’s eye expressions is important but we also need to be aware of our own. “Our ‘resting’ faces can make us look miserable and unapproachable and without all those mouth shrugs or grins in our repertoire we need to make an active effort to use our eyes to transmit friendly smiles and expressions of empathy.”

Following the findings, Vision Direct has created a quiz to test the nation on its ability to recognize key everyday expressions—via the eyes.

To take the quiz visit

Research contact: @SWNS