OF FACE MASKS AND HIDDEN SMILES – Working the magic in the pandemic

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I have largely been very obedient to the President’s call. Staying home is not too difficult for me and I am really interested in flattening the curve. I believe many people have also towed the same line. And I know this to be true because I have seen the images in the media—not because I went out to see whether people are out. I am not one of those Ghanaians who would go out just to see if everybody else came out.

However, with all my compliance, there was something that necessitated me stepping out briefly sometime in the past week. I spent not more than an hour out of my house and a majority of that time I was driving around. At least, from what I saw people have been obedient to the call for people to stay indoors. Our prayer is that all these measures yield the expected fruits so that the lockdown can be eased, if not totally discontinued sooner rather than later.

During the brief period I was out of the house, I happened to have visited a couple of business places in my neighbourhood. These included the mom-and-pop shop to replenish our stock of drinking water, the corner shop to top up units for my prepaid electricity meter and then a pharmacy for some medication.

In all of the three places I visited last Thursday afternoon, I realised that all the attendants had their face masks on. By and large, many businesses were observing all the necessary protocols as recommended by health experts as a means of curbing the spread of this virus. It tells me that in spite of all the jokes on social media, Ghanaians are actually taking this pandemic seriously. At least some people are.

However, as I moved from shop to shop, it dawned on me that there was something missing in those encounters—something so fundamental that it affected my experience at all three places. At first, I could not place a finger on what was wrong. But then finally it dawned on me. What I was not seeing were the smiles. The front line staff I encountered were not smiling. The smiles were missing.

Readers might be keen as to know how I came about this observation when I just said that every single one of the attendants I dealt with had face masks on. If the masks had covered their mouths, how did I know they were not smiling?

The answer is simple.

The mouth is just one way we show that we are smiling—and it is not a very good one. The best place to show that one is genuinely smiling is the eyes—specifically, the corners of the eyes. The eyes, we are told, are the windows to the soul. More than any other part of the human anatomy, the eyes reveal our deepest emotions.

There is a simple biological explanation behind why we smile genuinely with our eyes rather than with our mouths or lips. It is widely known that we employ two sets of muscles in generating a smile. The first major muscle is the zygomaticus major muscle, which starts at the cheekbone and extends to the corner of the mouth. This is the muscle we use to pull the corners of our mouth and to pout. The other muscle used is the orbicularis oculi, which is a muscle in the face that closes the eyelids.

Of the two muscles employed, the zygomaticus major muscle is the one that is under the conscious control of the individual. At any point in time, we are able to turn the angles of our mouth sideways or outwards. On the other hand, humans cannot voluntarily contract the orbicularis oculi muscle. Those muscles are innervated by branches of the autonomic nervous system and not on our own accord. What this simply means is that a truly pleasurable feeling causes the sides of our eyes to close slightly regardless of what we do with our mouths.

I find it interesting that face masks covers the mouth area and therefore it does not matter what we do with our mouths. The true smile comes from the corners of the eyes, an area that is not covered by the face masks. When our hardworking customer-facing employees smile therefore it can still be seen—behind the face masks.

It is also interesting to note that, from now onwards, the face mask is going to make it impossible for front line employees to get away with any fake smiles. A fake smile is the one that is given only with the mouth. Unfortunately, the face mask will be used in covering that part of the body. A funny face mask might also not do the trick. Therefore, during this COVID-19 pandemic and in the post-COVID-19 era to come, only a genuine smile will suffice.

What our front line staff need to learn is how to generate a genuine a smile in the midst of this pandemic. Thankfully, there is a way. The answer lies in our emotions. There are two main ways of regulating one’s emotions. The way one goes about this regulation is the key to generating a genuine smile during these difficult times.

The first regulatory means is referred to as Surface Acting. As the name implies, this is the superficial manipulation of one’s outward expressions to give semblance of one possessing certain emotions. One means by which people engage in Surface Acting is to a smile just to give an impression of being happy.

The unfortunate thing about a fake smile is that it can be spotted from a mile away. People have an inherent ability to spot a fake smile—and when those people happen to be your customers going through a tough time in life, you might end up shooting yourself in the foot. Customers resent fake attempts at making them feel good. I have argued extensively that having a straight face is far better than having a fake smile.

The better means of regulating one’s emotions is referred to as Deep Acting. This requires a conscious attempt to feel the required emotion which would then lead naturally to an expression of the required emotion. For the purposes of this discussion, Deep Acting involves front line employees modifying their feelings to ensure that they express the right emotions in front of customers. The kind of emotions that would result in the generation of a genuine smile require that the employee in question modify his or her emotions by thinking pleasurable thoughts.

But this leads to the question: in this day and age, is there something to smile about? Do front line staff, who risk their lives every time they leave their houses to work, have a cause to create any pleasurable thoughts? In the midst of all this deaths and uncertainty, who, in their right mind, would find something to smile about? All is not as gloomy as it seems, if you ask me.

I believe so long as people have lives, there is enough to be thankful for. People are dying by the minute and if you are still alive and kicking, there is a cause to smile. I believe so long as one has a job to go to, the one has cause to be happy. There are many jobless graduates pounding the streets of many cities looking for jobs. I believe if you woke up from a bed every morning, from a room and from a house, there is enough reason to be happy. The least one can do in all of this chaotic situation is to smile at the next customer.

We say so many things about the power of a smile. It is the shortest distance between two people. It is the universal welcome. It is the key that fits the lock of everybody’s heart. If the smile is so important as a means of welcoming customers, then I think this is the time when it is most needed. I can perfectly understand that these are definitely not the best of times. People are worried—and they have every right to be. We live in dangerous times. My heart goes out to every one of those wonderful people who are having to go to work every day because what they do is essential to the continual survival of our communities. I respect every one of them.

This pandemic has been so devastating that it is conceivable that our world would never be the same again. One of the changes that I see that might stick around for a long time is the wearing of face masks by front line staff. Just as face masks became an everyday item of clothing in places like China even before the emergence of COVID-19, so it is entirely possible that we would be wearing face masks for a long time to come. When, or hopefully if, that time comes, then it is important for customer service employees to know that their eyes would become very important for the quality of experience they give to their customers—because with the eyes, no genuine smiles would be hidden.

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