How a year of wearing masks and talking on Zoom has changed us

Experts address "Zoom fatigue" and the rising interest in plastic surgery.

Peering over the brim of our masks or into the glow of group Zoom chats, we have watched the COVID-19 pandemic upend our world, and how we relate to it.

After having spent more than a year covering our faces and staying 6 feet apart from others, the way we converse and behave has had to change to fit our new reality.

Experts probing the lasting impacts of this era have found shifting structures in our social interaction, empathy and self-perception: COVID-19 has altered the alchemy of our human element.

"Our masks and distance provide us safety, but there's a cost, and the cost is conversational closeness," Dr. Paul Ekman, a renowned psychologist who pioneered the study of emotions and facial expressions, told ABC News.

"We're seeing dramatic differences in how we interact," body language expert Patti Wood told ABC News. "Typically when you're face to face, you can exchange up to 10,000 nonverbal cues in less than a minute." But with half our faces covered, we've begun to rely on other modes of expression.

Risk of infection has changed our body language, too.

"You're orienting to protect yourself," Wood said. "You're staying outside that intimate zone, you're more protective of who you share that space with."

With half our faces covered in masks, something that has been unfamiliar in Western culture, we're now relying more on expression with our eyes -- a powerful tool in nonverbal communication, according to experts.

"Eyes really are the window into the soul -- there's actual research to support that," Mollie Ruben, the director of the Emotion, Pain and Interpersonal Communication Lab at the University of Maine, told ABC News.

Ruben is studying the impact of pandemic-era masks through crowdsourced selfies and participants' perceptions of those faces, with and without masks.

In the study, over 1,000 participants -- of different ethnicities, genders and ages -- across the U.S. were asked to rate how friendly each face came across. Most participants said the people wearing masks seemed more amiable and intelligent. This was also the case when participants were shown two photos of the same person with and without a mask.

Holding one another's gaze to gauge emotional reaction is important -- and here, that direct eye contact may "reduce some of the biases we have," Ruben said, and prompt empathy with even a stranger.

If masks previously held a connotation of deception or danger, experts said they now could symbolize the common purpose of health.

"Now, it's what brings us together," Ruben said. "We pick up on those cues without even knowing it."

"The top half of the face typically is a very honest part of the body," Wood said. "It's under less conscious control."

In the pandemic era, life has had to move online, but experts warn that interacting via video conference can be exhausting, as the mind works overtime to compensate for the disorienting virtual space.

"When you're on a big Zoom grid, and someone looks offscreen to the left -- they're not looking at the person you're seeing on the left. But it directs your mind there," Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, told ABC News. He has been studying the impact of "Zoom fatigue."

"Our spatial geography isn't preserved," he said. "We lose that common ground."

"It's like a firehose of nonverbal behavior, seeing all these faces and movements, but no social meaning behind them," Bailenson continued. "There's an intricate dance, correlations among movements and people in a shared space. What should be automatic has to be reprocessed, conscious, and that increases your cognitive load -- you're expending extra mental energy."

Plus, most people end up staring at their own face during video conferences.

"They're stuck staring at their own face on Zoom, for however many hours a day, and they're just like, 'Oh my gosh, this looks so old, this is sagging, my nose looks big,'" Dr. Michael Reilly, a practicing physician and Georgetown University professor of facial, plastic and reconstructive surgery, told ABC. "It's a strange driver for surgery right now. People are their own worst critics."

He said he's seen about a 30% increase in cosmetic procedures since the pandemic began, even as most people continue to avoid hospitals and doctors' offices.

Once elective surgeries were put back on the board following the first months of the pandemic, the industry started booming and has gotten “significantly busier in the last nine months," Reilly said. Botox is big right now, he said, as are facelifts, especially because people are spending so much time looking at themselves on camera.

There is also the added bonus that if someone does choose to go under the knife right now, they can easily hide their bandages and scars under a mask, or by staying home, in quarantine.

"We're calling it a 'Zoom boom,'" Reilly said. "There's a lot of emotional layers to this pandemic relating to your appearance."

Motivation for self-improvement is one thing, but perpetual self-criticism causes its own kind of burnout, experts said, and there's a lot of that going around during this time, when we're all stuck inside our homes and inside our Zoom boxes.

"We've got a primal need for a pull toward the same energy, in person: the standing ovation, the stadium wave, laughter moving through a crowd of people, being in sync when we dance. We're missing that -- and that creates connection," Wood said.

"It's going to be hard to get relationships started again," Ekman said, "but we humans, we're adaptable, and we'll find a way."

ABC News' Eric M. Strauss, Brian Hartman and Sony Salzman contributed to this report.