NCL Head of Psychology on body language research, mask communication strategies

Elizabeth Meade interviews Dr. Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, NCL Head of Psychology, who unmasks body language and communication

Elizabeth Meade
21st November 2020
Lockdown has changed university–no nights out, no parties, no sports. Masks and Zoom meetings have complicated communication. Dr. Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, University Head of Psychology and human communications researcher, kindly shares some tips as part of a pandemic socializing advice campaign by Scape student accommodation.

How can students communicate with others and make friends whilst wearing a mask?

It’s all about getting a balance of communication. When we communicate with others and establish friendships, our faces can be an important part of that but not the only part. We can communicate with hand gestures, other parts of the face, and tone of voice. There are ways to draw ourselves together without using our face; it’s a matter of augmenting what we do have.

How has virtual learning impacted friendships and communication?

Virtual learning has had both positive and negative effects. Some students have felt less connected with cohorts because they are not meeting physically in a lab or lecture theatre, leading to a lack of co-presence. We are seeing people’s faces a lot more in a Zoom lecture or seminar than in a live seminar or lecture, where you are staring at the lecturer most of the time. You can see, learn, and become familiar with those faces much quicker in Zoom. We learn differently in virtual environments, but when we go back to normality we will retain some of that because it empowers students to be student-led and self-led. They must plan their own timetable and studying. This seems like hard work now, but is a really good life skill and way of preparing for world of work once everybody graduates.

What made you interested in body language?

My interest began with my PhD about 30 years ago, and I started looking at the development of children’s dialogue skills, particularly language skills over early primary school years. Children’s dialogues are more complicated with visual cues. For example, if they can’t see someone, very young children really struggle to articulate complex information. They will use hand gestures to scaffold communication in person.

What are some common misconceptions about body language?

Most think they are good at detecting deception. People can lie to each other all the time. We misread cues as being deception, like fidgeting and avoiding eye contact. A highly-motivated adult liar will try to look more credible. Deception is a common part of daily life because minor deceptions are an integral part of relationships. We are good at changing facial expressions--monkeys will deceive one another, using visual cues. We have that evolutionary advantage.

What advice do you have for someone interested in this topic?

That depends on your motivations. If you're doing a PhD on a particular topic there's still lots and lots to explore around visual communication. Interesting things have come up from COVID context about how we make most of our communicative skills; we are adaptive and adapt all the time in different ways. It's important to understand fundamentals from different perspectives. It's like a TARDIS--you think this is one little topic, then it explodes. Like facial expressions--we know all this stuff now. Lots of incarceration has been based on eyewitness testimony that was incorrect, and psychology has brought information to that arena. Additionally, the use of hand gestures--when we use gestures, not only do they happen a lot when we're speaking, but we see information that isn't actually spoken.

Do you have any other big takeaways to share on this subject?

Masks do interfere. You lose lip movements, which for most people are an important part of speech perception. Part of the reason people have trouble hearing or picking up what people are saying is not just muffled noise. People speak more clearly over the phone because they are aware of lack of visuals--we often talk more sloppily face-to-face, and masks make it hard. We may need to speak slower, articulate what we are saying and use more hand gestures to get across meaning. I am proud of the students I have interacted with for their adaptation and resilience. They are willing to adapt and morph into new creation and modes of delivery. I appreciate how patient they have been.

Featured Image: dragonalpha001 on

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AUTHOR: Elizabeth Meade
(she/her) Head of Current Affairs (News, Campus Comment, Comment, Science). Chemistry major. Avid reader. Chaos theorist. Amateur batrachologist and historian. Rock fan. Likes cybersecurity and cooking. Wrote the first article for Puzzles. Probably the first Courier writer to have work featured in one of Justin Whang's videos.

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