Research has shown that social interaction can increase an individual’s ability to detect emotions in faces. More experience at engaging with different facial expressions in a variety of situations will allow us to understand the emotions that are displayed. These emotions may be shown if a person is happy, for example, whereby their mouth may be smiling, and they may have raised eyebrows. Both are physical facial movements to indicate that someone is happy.
When we first meet someone in a face-to-face environment, social cues are other ways in which we can try and understand how someone is feeling. Social cues are social symbols within an environment that can be displayed through body language, tone of voice or even the type of words that are used. These symbols are intended to send indirect messages from one person to another as a way of communicating.
If a person is angry, they may not have an angry look on their face and may not directly say that they are angry, however, if you come into contact with an angry individual, you will probably notice pretty quickly how they are feeling. An angry person may have their hands scrunched up in a fist or may have a harsher tone of voice, and these are key indicators that someone is really not happy for some reason.
In the recent times of COVID-19, a lot of people are now in lockdown and this can cause issues in relation to the detection of emotions and social cues. Having less face-to-face communication can mean that facial emotion expressions and social cues can be more difficult to detect. If you are speaking to someone on the telephone for instance, you cannot see their face or their body movements, so without being able to understand the recipient’s tone of voice, you may not be able to understand someone’s emotions based upon a combination of social cues. Similarly, if a larger number of text messages are being used as a way of contact instead of face-to-face communications, then social cues cannot be presented in these messages and it can be difficult to understand how a person is feeling.
Online software can come in useful to help communication as it allows us to interact with each other in a virtual (and more lifelike) environment rather than communicating through email and text message. Since a lot of organisations have had to rapidly change ways of operation, they are now heavily relying on virtual software such as Skype or Zoom for communication. Families are also relying more upon zoom to keep in touch with those who do not live in the same household.
In my job role, where I still have contact with students, I tend to use Skype or Microsoft Teams a few times a week just to maintain social contact with students and colleagues. The good thing about these types of software is that they allow for video communication so you can see and speak to someone at the same time. This can allow you to more easily pick up on how someone is feeling, or in my case whether a teaching concept is understood).
I have also noticed that therapists and counsellors are also offering online appointments by using confidential virtual software to try and support clients during these difficult times. Sometimes having that distanced but face-to-face contact with a counsellor on a weekly basis can support someone who is in lockdown, especially if they are in a more isolated environment away from family.
The criticism of these types of software is that you have to know how to use them and, in some ways, you need to have knowledge of computers and basic IT systems or be ‘tech savvy’ as its more commonly known. For older individuals who may have not used computers, this can then mean that they do become more isolated from families and friends as they will not be able to have that face-to-face contact. It also means that families cannot easily check up on an older individual to see how they are really managing during these difficult times.
From my own experiences of lockdown, my suggestion would be to try and communicate with people in a variety of ways if this is possible. Use the telephone for those who may prefer this method of communication but also use virtual software for the times when some face-to-face virtual engagement is needed. Although I have sent a lot more emails and messages over the past couple of months, for me, nothing can replace the face-to-face contact of meeting someone for a chat or a coffee.
Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University.