The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other health professionals, have maintained that the recent coronavirus (COVID-19) can be spread by touching people or surfaces infected by the virus, and then touching your face – particularly your mouth, nose, and eyes, where the virus can gain access to your body. No doubt, fears of this potentially deadly virus is causing people around the world a great deal of stress. Here’s the problem: many of our automatic and often unconscious reactions to stress can lead to infection.
You may have seen clips of health professionals warning about face-touching in press conferences, but then absent-mindedly touching their own faces – even licking a finger to turn a page on their written speeches! Unfortunately, stress can increase the incidence of face-touching, so we need to be doubly careful to monitor our nonverbal behavior.
Research on nonverbal cues of deception has focused on common body language cues that are associated with stress. Some of these same cues are those that could lead to viral infection. Stress from telling a lie has been associated with people touching their noses or faces. It has been suggested that momentary increases in tension or stress – such as when someone is telling a lie – may cause sensitivity in the mucus membranes of the nasal cavity which causes the nose to itch. This triggers an almost-automatic response of scratching or rubbing the nose.
Stress may also lead to dry eyes, primarily because the autonomic reaction to fear-induced stress is to widen the eyes and blink less frequently, thus drying out our eyes. Our responses can include eye rubbing behavior – opening the way for the virus to enter our bodies.
How about mouth-touching behavior? Well, a common reaction to stress is self-touching, which seems to serve a soothing function, and some of that might consist of chin or cheek rubbing, which can bring infected fingers dangerously close to the mouth. Of course, another nonverbal cue of stress is nail-biting, which provides the virus with direct access to the mouth.
Don’t get me started talking about greetings. Most greeting behavior involves touching hands (handshaking), cheek-kissing, hugging, and the like – all opening the door for viral transmission. I’ve noticed that in recent social gatherings people almost automatically extend their hands or hug. Moving to more safe forms of greeting – waves, fist-bumps, or even bowing – should become the norm during these troubling times.
What should we do? We need to become more aware of our nonverbal behavior and go into social situations more mindfully – making sure that we don’t engage in automatic and potentially infectious touching.
Morris, D. (1977). Manwatching. New York: Abrams.
Riggio, R.E., Friedman, H.S., & DiMatteo, M.R. (1981). Nonverbal greetings: Effects of personality and the situation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
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