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Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2006, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
Talking face to face
By Claire Heald
BBC News Magazine

Muslim teaching assistant Aishah Azmi
Do we need more than the eyes?
Debate over Muslim women wearing the full-face veil has been raging. So is it important for communication to see more than someone's eyes?

The eyes are the window to the soul, so the proverb goes. But do we need to see more?

Jack Straw's comments about asking Muslim women in his surgery to remove the face veil - and the tribunal case over a Muslim classroom assistant wearing the niqab - have sparked much debate.

But does it really obstruct communication if we can only see the eyes? In one-on-one contact, in the same physical place, the eyes are the focus. So does it matter if that's all that can be seen?

'Eyebrow flash'

Absolutely, say body language experts. Seeing only the eyes cuts 80% of the detail that comes to us unspoken, says psychologist Dr David Lewis.

Messages come thick and fast from other body parts - around the eyes, the rest of the face and the whole body.

"The eyes will tell you quite a lot, but it's like trying to guess what's in a book by reading the first chapter. The whole face is the major area of non-verbal communication."

They don't feel they need to see my face to hear my voice
Nadia Ajibade

Eyebrows alone contain key signals when people meet - in every culture, communication begins with a split-second "mutual eyebrow flash" - raising them to acknowledge each other.

They can be used to ask a question or give a rebuke, adds psychologist Dr Andrina McCormack.

Under the eyes, small pockets of flesh pop up when someone smiles, but only if the smile is genuine. Miss them, and can you judge?

Across the rest of the face, whether the muscles are relaxed or tense indicates mood.

The mouth is seen as vital. For instance, when pre-school children engage in rough and tumble play, they use a different face to show that it is friendly - teeth bared, mouth open, but muscles relaxed. If the face becomes tense it signals time to take cover.

Bite warning

This translates to adulthood - the smile is a way of rolling back the lips in a non-threatening way. As the human mouth is loaded with germs it is important to know if someone is going to bite.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Watch the whole body, say psychologists

People use the whole body to read people's mood - through gesture, posture, whether they are holding on to themselves, clutching their arms or relaxed. It is often absorbed on a sub-conscious level.

But do these subtle signals really matter? Some Muslim women who wear the niqab say not.

"Within my [mixed] community, I interact just as well as anyone else does and get on with my neighbours," Nadia Ajibade, 23, told the BBC. "They're not shallow, they don't see the face veil as a barrier. They don't feel they need to see my face to hear my voice."

Others say perhaps it is a separation too far. Teacher Maryam Khan, says: "Working with young children, so much is read just from facial expressions, you don't have to speak to a child.

"If they can't see your face, they don't know what you're thinking - a glare, a smile."

David Cameron at a school
Non-verbal communication is key for the young

Psychologists agree. "It's particularly true for children under five because their communication is non-verbal, they're much better at reading it than adults," says Dr Lewis. "If they're denied these signals they become quite confused."

In a culture where wearing veils is less common, covering the face can have other historic connotations. In the UK, there have been negative associations with a concealed face - the highwayman, executioner, burglar or today's hoodies.

When non-verbal information in a face is hidden, it can provoke anxiety and nervousness, says Dr Lewis - prompting "angry or more negative" responses.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

As a deaf male who depends on lip-reading in a big way - the wearing of the veil prevents me from communicating with many Muslim women, so yes, for me it is one of the most divisive items of clothing one can wear.
Mike Heckman, Leeds

Non-verbal communication is more important than what you say, just ask any police interrogator or suspicious love interest. Face to face is the purest form of communication because of the non-verbal communication we receive. So, any face covering, like sunglasses or veils, hinders the non verbal communication that takes place.

This is why world leaders fly to countries far away to have an important political talk rather than just conference call. For an important conversation I would also rather be face to face than via email or phone.
Maureen, Florida, USA

I'm sure all of this is perfectly true, but since we all seem to manage perfectly well on the phone where there are no facial clues, surely a mere veil can't impede communication that much.
Allie, Worcester

Recently, I taught a group of young veiled and non-veiled graduates and it proved difficult to remember the names of the veiled women. When they talked in class it was difficult to hear what they said clearly.
Graham, Dubai

I am surprised that more has not been said in the defence for the hard of hearing. Like Mike from Leeds, I also attend lip reading classes and my teacher makes many comments about men who sport facial hair, people who wear dark glasses and anyone who covers their mouth for any reason. It makes it all the more difficult for us to lip read them.
Lyn, Trowbridge

I'm sure the veil does cause difficulties in communication; however, it seems to me that people should be able to dress according to their sensibilities whether it causes me discomfort or not. Diversity is not a threat, and if women continue to find reason to wear the veil, we will become accustomed to it.
Julianna, Toronto, Canada

I just like to see the face of the person I'm talking to. I'm not an expert but I truly believe it breaks down barriers, talking to eyes just doesn't do it for me.
Anthony, Cambridge

I wear a veil to work and it's never hindered my successful career nor stalled relationships with my many colleagues.
Stephanie Binks, London, UK

I went to a Convent School - the nuns wore long black robes and wimples. It was a closed order where only the teaching staff were allowed to speak during school hours and they reverted to silence in the evening.

On several occasions I stayed on after hours and still remember how frightening I found making my way along the dark corridors of the old building in icy silence with the dark shadows of nuns sweeping either side of me as they passed. It was something I never got used to. Children can easily be frightened by adults - which is why it is often suggested that we crouch down to their level to communicate. A tall figure in black with most of the face obscured by a black veil must be terrifying to little ones.
Terri, Leamington UK

I give no racial judgement at all but I find it extremely difficult to feel comfortable around people who cover their faces in any way. Particularly when travelling by public transport, you can't see people's faces and so you wonder what is running through their minds. Simply because they are covering the rest of their facial expressions.
Lauren, South Wales

Anyone who deals with email on a regular basis knows that without a face to look at it's very easy to mis-read what someone is trying to say. Often, innocuous emails turn into major workgroup issues because someone inferred something in the writing which wasn't really intended to be taken that way.

If adults who can reason their way through a conversation can make a simple mistake like this it's got to be much more problematic for children who get more from facial expressions than older people.
Robert Waddell, Toronto, Canada

I have Asperger Syndrome (An Autistic Spectrum Disorder) and am unable to read most body language. I have to rely on what people are saying and am told I miss out on huge amounts of what people are trying to get across to me.

As far as I am concerned, if you have something to say then it should be conveyed verbally, therefore removing any need for body language and also removing any misunderstanding.
Dave Morgan, Rhyl

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