We’ve all had to navigate new normals throughout the pandemic. But real estate agents and others in industries with heavy face-to-face consumer contact have had to learn how to communicate in different ways while one of their primary sources of communication — their face and its expressions — is largely obscured due to the necessity of face masks.
“If you smile big enough, you can see someone smile through a mask,” hospitality guru Will Guidara told attendees at Connect Now in June. “It just means that all of the things we’re used to doing in an effort to connect with other people, we do them louder.”
What Guidara says is right, according to psychologist Paul Ekman. A smile that has true emotion behind it, called a Duchenne smile, will engage the muscle around the eye, which will result in narrowing of the eyes and crinkling of the skin around it.
But it takes a genuine effort to clearly convey other emotions through one’s eyes, or use other parts of the body more actively when full use of the face is no longer an option, and it’s something most people just aren’t used to doing.
That’s why some real estate agents, like Douglas Elliman’s Heather T. Roy and Learka Bosnak, have taken to hiring body language experts to help them communicate with clients better from behind a mask.
“We’re like, ‘We need new skills. We need people to know what we’re thinking, and we also need to know what they’re thinking,'” Roy told the Wall Street Journal.
The pair hired coach and body language expert Mark Edgar Stephens who ran through mock home showings with them and explained that a lot of information can be communicated just through eye movement.
“Since we’re not seeing the full face, there is a great concern among Realtors that the feeling that they have, or the messages that they want to convey on a non-verbal level … is somehow not as profound because we can’t see the bottom half of the face,” Stephens told Inman.
“The bottom half of the face, yes, that’s where we see the smile, that’s where we can see certain micro-expressions … [but] the eyes are actually the most important part of the face,” he explained. “On one side is, we have a thing called ‘mirror neurons’ and they basically reflect back behavior between primates, in this case, humans. So, one of the reasons why it’s so important, is because whatever it is that we’re thinking about, what we’re feeling, whether it’s excitement to show a property or even nervousness about being in a situation with COVID-19 now, that shows through our eyes.”
Not only is Stephens a body language expert, but some of his closest friends, he told Inman, are Realtors. So, he has some unique insights when it comes to conducting in-person real estate business while wearing a mask. He also regularly hosts workshops for brokerages of all sizes on topics like how to conduct a good Zoom meeting, and how to make a good first impression.
In order to assure clients during a showing, Stephens said Realtors should make themselves as comfortable as possible in order to transmit that same feeling of confidence and comfort to the client.
He also advised Roy and Bosnak to involve their entire body during interactions with clients. Stephens pointed out that it’s important to squarely face clients so that they know they’re being listened to. And on sunny days, to remember to remove sunglasses so that the face isn’t even more obscured.
“If we have masks and sunglasses on, that becomes very challenging,” Roy said. “Now we have to take our sunglasses off.”
Maintaining eye contact can indicate interest and openness, but some looks, like a narrowing of the eyes, can signal stress or that the individual feels threatened.
Recognizing a client’s negative reaction through their eye expressions is usually fairly intuitive, especially for practiced real estate agents. But, because body language is something people often do instinctively, rather than consciously, agents may want to practice their own nonverbal cues while wearing a mask to make sure they’re conveying the right message.
Stephens told Inman more specifically, that a person’s eyes, hands and feet are all primary indicators that can be used to signal information.
“For real estate agents who are doing a showing, they can actually, on a subconscious level, direct the client’s eye where they should be going in the space, or what they should be looking at,” Stephens said. “So if we walk into a house … and we want to lead the person through the kitchen, but then into the next room because we know the next room … [is] going to make the best impression, what we can do, is without saying anything to the client, we can actually open up our body into space, create a block that might go into the room you don’t want to go into next, and open up to the space that you do want to go into.”
In general, Stephens said that mirroring a client’s body language will help put them at ease if they appear nervous when meeting indoors and in-person. Like dating, he said, people feel more comfortable around others who have the same type of mannerisms and level of intro- or extrovertedness.
“If you’re touching everything and you’re more comfortable being close to somebody and I’m someone who’s not comfortable with it, I might then believe that you’re lax in terms of the way you approach space, and you might put me more at risk,” Stephens said.
“However, if you mimic, as the agent, my body language and you show me that you’re being extra careful, and you’re aware that I’m being extra careful, now you’re sending a subconscious message to me without ever saying it verbally, that you’re very aware that we have to be cautious, that we have to be in the space socially distanced, that we shouldn’t be touching things, and we show that by mirroring the person’s body language.”
Janine Driver, founder of the Body Language Institute in Washington, D.C., also had some helpful insights on a recent appearance on “The Today Show.” Driver said it’s important to keep the three “power zones” — the throat, belly button and groin — open to others, rather than closed off by arm or leg positions. Doing so indicates approachability and may increase one’s chances of likability.
The tilt of one’s head also has meaning, Driver noted. While a head tilted to the side during a conversation is generally interpreted as compassionate, a straight head “commands attention.”
Likewise, eyebrows can be a huge source of information. When a person’s inner eyebrows are pulled together and up, Driver said, that person is sad. Lowered eyebrows typically indicate anger, while raised eyebrows mark surprise.
In terms of saying goodbye at the end of a home showing or other in-person meeting, Stephens echoed the importance of mirroring a client’s body language and cues for their comfort. But, he also noted that showing off those pearly whites — once it’s safe to do so — can be a personal touch that will leave a positive impression.
“At the very end of the showing, as you’ve moved out of the house, you’ve moved out of the space or you’ve moved to the front door, and they are more than six feet away … that would be the perfect time, just like the end of a very good date … to lower the mask,” Stephens said. “Because then you can see the face, then you can see the smile.”
“We finally get to see the rest of their face, and if we see a smile there, the last impression (just like the first impression) is very important — [and it’s that] our smiling agent is going to help see us through this entire transaction.”