Wearing a mask all the time affects how we interact with each other. But how?
By Rachel Sugar Jun 8, 2020, 11:30am EDT
On our daily walk, my small dog barked at a big dog, and I did what I always do: smile meaningfully, in a manner I hope communicates, “She’s friendly!” and, “I’m sorry!” and, “I don’t think that was an appropriate response, either!” but then I realized I was masked. How did the big dog’s companion feel about it? I couldn’t tell. He was also masked. I worried a woman with a poodle was mad at me for allowing my dog to sniff her dog. “You can see it in her eyes!” I told my boyfriend. “No,” he said. “You can’t.”
Masks mean something is wrong; we’re wearing them because things are not okay. For a while, this is all they said, I thought. “Nothing is normal!” I’d think, looking out over the mostly empty streets.
But we are going on three months. The streets sometimes have people in them. Masks still mean something is wrong, but now they’re also just a fact of living, and what was a siren has mellowed into a low unsettling hum. It is very hard to say anything definitive about what the next year or month or week will look like, but by all expert predictions, we can say this: It is almost certain that the future will be masked.
In the first days of the coronavirus pandemic, we were told masks weren’t necessary, maybe even counterproductive, despite the fact that they’d been common in Asia for years. Then a chorus of medical experts began raising alarm bells: Yes, of coursewe should wear masks, they argued, in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. In early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) amended its guidelines, recommending that people wear “cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” In June, the World Health Organization stated that the public should wear masks “on public transport, in shops, or in other confined or crowded environments,” with medical masks preferred for people over age 60 or with preexisting conditions.
So now, with certain high-ranking exceptions and some public consternation, we’re wearing masks, and we will be wearing masks for the foreseeable future. As the economy opens up and we spend more time in public settings, it seems possible that we will only wear more masks, trading the freedom of exposing our full faces for the freedom of rejoining some semblance of the world. Office workers will wear masks. Commuters will wear masks.
Rationally, it should be a small change: Masks, for one thing, aren’t very big. There is a lot we still don’t know about how well masks work and under what circumstances, but there is mounting evidence that even non-medical grade fabric masks help prevent the coronavirus from spreading, which is logical: If the virus spreads mainly through infected droplets, then yes, let’s do our best to contain them before we cough or sneeze or talk them out into the world. So this is what we’re doing now, and if it helps at all, then it’s obviously worth it. I have never especially liked my chin, anyway.
But already, it has changed things. The most jarring changes are not physical, although I liked it better when I spent less time marinating in the heat of my own breath. It is the dog encounter. It is the sense that I don’t have the access to other people that I did before, that everyone I pass is just slightly more removed. (This is exacerbated, probably, by the fact that it is true — 6 feet!)
It isn’t just a feeling. It is, according to Paula Niedenthal, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies emotional processing, simply true. We really do lose information when we’re operating without the benefit of the lower half of our face, she tells me from her home in Madison, where she has been experimenting with her own growing mask collection. Eyes may be the window to the soul, but mouths and chins, it turns out, are also quite useful.
When the lower half of someone’s face is obscured, she explains, we tend to see their emotions as more muted. Happy babies seem less happy if their mouths are obscured by pacifiers. Smiling women are perceived as less smiling when their mouths are covered by veils. This is true, even accounting for cultural biases against niqabs or pacifiers: Without the lower face, we tend to read even strong emotions as muted ones.
We really do lose information when we’re operating without the benefit of the lower half of our face
This does not affect all feelings equally. Fear and anger, for example, are big upper face emotions, Niedenthal says; a mask doesn’t change wide eyes or furrowed brows. But happiness and sadness — lower face emotions — are harder to read.
You can see that someone’s smiling, sort of, but how are they smiling? You don’t really know. “You wouldn’t be able to tell, really, if I was smiling in a polite, affiliative way, or with a smirk of dominance. I could have any number of kinds of smiles going on,” she tells me.
Now, there are new ways to misunderstand each other, and we already had so many good ones before. Facial mimicry is a form of communication, she explains: You smirk at me, I smirk back, you see me mirroring your smirk, confirming that I saw you, and now we have reached an understanding. We are, together, smirking. “That’s what we can’t have with masks,” she says. “If I’m making a smile of dominance, and you’re thinking I’m being affiliative,” then “whatever you’re doing back to me is not what I’m doing to you,” and masks or no masks, “it’s going to be perceived as an error by both of us.”
Presumably, this is an issue everywhere, to some extent. But Niedenthal suspects it may be particularly pronounced in the US. There is a lot of ancestral diversity here, and one result of this is that our social norms are relatively loose, which means it’s hard to know how anybody’s going to react to anything, and we need as many cues as we can get. In countries with low ancestral diversity, “you already know what people are feeling because there’s a prescription for the feeling there.”
But here, mostly, there isn’t, and when we search each other’s faces now, we are often staring into each other’s masks.
“You could imagine people becoming more gestural with their hands”
Luckily, we are nothing if not endlessly adaptive, and there are other ways to communicate, such as with words. I find myself chuckling audibly when I would have smiled before. It does not feel natural yet, but I would say it is increasingly unforced. “You could imagine people becoming more gestural with their hands,” Niedenthal proposes. “It could be we’re going to convey a lot more information with head inclination.” We could just talk more, although this is a somewhat less helpful solution for people who depend on reading lips.
It’s also possible that we’ll get better at reading the parts of other people’s faces that are visible, becoming attuned to minute brow movements we used to overlook. Niedenthal is skeptical. “You could say, hey, try to make more eye contact, but I don’t know how much of a signal is there that we were missing before.”
Riza Khamal has been thinking about all of this for years. A writer and social media strategist originally from the Philippines, she started wearing a niqab when she moved to Canada, intermittently at first, and then all the time. One weird byproduct of the coronavirus, she tells me, is that suddenly she’s not an outlier. “It’s kind of nice on my part, because I can go out and nobody will look down [on] me as [the] strange one,” she laughs. “I am the trend now.” By now, she’s figured out most of the communication issues. “I’ve experimented just out of curiosity,” she tells me. She’d smile at people in public, and if they smiled back, she’d ask them about it. “I would be like, ‘Hi, you smiled at me back then. Why?’ And they’d say, “Because you smiled at me!’”
But then Khamal is, she tells me, an exceptionally smiley person.
It is possible to communicate with our faces covered. Vast swaths of the world have been doing it for years.
In 1910, a respiratory illness called the Manchurian Plague ravaged northeastern China. Most experts were pretty sure the disease was spread by rats, but Wu Lien-teh, the young doctor who’d been put in charge of China’s plague response, had another idea: The disease, he argued, was spread through droplets in the air. This, according to medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris, was “heresy,” but it was also right. In an attempt to keep the disease contained, Wu began turning existing surgical masks into “easy-to-wear protective devices,” mainly for doctors, nurses, and patients.
People were skeptical, until a doctor who’d refused to wear one died. And then, as Lynteris tells it, people changed their minds. The masks — which look more or less like modern surgical masks — became symbols of modernity and reason, and good hygiene, proof that China was “trailblazing ahead of Western medicine.” (The dead doctor had been French.)
It wasn’t until the first wave of the 1918 Spanish flu hit the US, though, that anti-epidemic masking went mainstream, explains Mitsutoshi Horii, a sociology professor at Japan’s Shumei University who is based in the UK. Regular people wore them. Health authorities mandated them. Protesters objected to them, citing their constitutional rights.
And then, for reasons that are somewhat hard to pinpoint, the histories diverge. In the US, mask use fizzled out. In China, as in much of East Asia, masks remained.
Masks were something they could do, a ritual of modern science
Horii, who studies mask use in Japan specifically, says that their widespread acceptance in the country emerged — ironically — amid a major push to westernize Japan in the 1920s. The folk rituals people used to perform, the ones that allowed them some feeling of control over uncontrollable situations — outbreaks of disease, for example — were now banned. “People didn’t know what to do,” Horii says. “They had their own practices that they used to do, but now they’re not allowed to do it.” There was an opening. Masks were something they could do, a ritual of modern science.
It’s not that everyone loved masks immediately: A common theme in medical mask history is that nobody anywhere loves medical masks. “So many people ridiculed mask-wearing in the beginning,” he says. They looked weird. They were a sign of weakness. Why did healthy people need to wear masks? But masks are actionable. “By putting on a mask,” he tells me, “people feel a sense of control over the situation.” And so for the next several decades, masks cycled in and out of favor in Japan, “always there, in the background,” mostly enlisted to help prevent the flu.
And then came SARS, and with it the beginning of modern mask history. The epidemic, which was concentrated in East Asia in 2002 and 2003, “led to the massive adoption of face masks as personal anti-viral protection” in the region, writes Lynteris. Before SARS, anthropologist Judy Yuen-man Siu told the Atlantic, masks were uncommon in Hong Kong, where she is based; now, she says, they’ve been “widely adopted,” both as a medical strategy and a social symbol. When the novel coronavirus broke out, there wasn’t even a question: Yes, masks, of course.
In the US, many of us are still adapting to navigating public life without our chins, and one result of this is that masks have not yet matured into the fabric of American life. It has only been nine weeks since the CDC began advising Americans to wear them.
If it has been an uphill battle to acclimate the country to our new masked life, there is a deep-seated reason for it. “In some countries, the moral significance of masks has been understood to be pro-social,” says Martha Lincoln, a medical anthropologist at San Francisco State University, pointing to China and Vietnam as examples. “Whereas in the US, I think we have a sense that wearing a mask is an anti-social gesture.” Masked figures tend to get read not as communitarian, but criminal. “A person wearing a mask may have a nefarious motive, may be an outlaw, may be a member of an anarchist black bloc,” she says. To subordinate your own identity doesn’t make you civically responsible; it means you’re hiding something.
Or, at least, it used to. Now that is changing, but not everywhere, not evenly, and not all at once. As a result, masks themselves have become a form of communicative shorthand. There is, of course, the obvious: As masks have become a “flashpoint in the virus culture wars,” wearing one or not becomes a very visible indicator of what kind of person you think you are. They are a tangible acknowledgment that we are all living amid the same disaster, and we care, and we’re trying. But maybe they could do more?
Clive Fields, a primary care physician and the chief medical officer at VillageMD in Houston, is optimistic that masks could maybe, in their own way, help bring people closer. “I had a plastic surgeon come down here literally an hour ago to show me his new University of Texas face mask,” he tells me. “All of a sudden, instead of being barriers, masks become initiators of conversation because you either have something in common or it’s a friendly common foe.” In the void where sports used to go, we can at least have sports-adjacent masks.
He predicts a future where we’ll all have a small wardrobe of masks we wear for different things: a home mask, a work mask, a looser mask for running. “There’ll be expensive masks and cheap masks, and they’ll be used as status symbols and non-status symbols, and it’ll become part of the way we dress,” Field hypothesizes. “No one thought about the watch as a fashion statement or a status symbol or as a way to convey other types of information,” he says, and now look where we are.
It is hard for me to imagine this future, where masks are as unremarkable as watches. But then, my conception of what is and is not imaginable is changing very quickly.
There is some precedent for this. As Nancy Deihl, head of costume studies at New York University, points out, fashion has repeatedly taken what once seemed inextricable from its initial context and transformed it into an aesthetic choice, directing me to camouflage. “You might have thought camouflage is military or paramilitary. It’s hunting gear. It’s always related to hostility. It’s never going to become fashionable,” she says. Except that, after the first Gulf War, it did. “Now it’s part of fashion print vocabulary.” There is pink camouflage and blue camouflage and camouflage with rainbows.
Originally, sunglasses were utilitarian protective gear, and they are still protective gear, but now they are also so much more. “We have made them into a stylish piece of the wardrobe,” Deihl says. “They’re everything from buy-it-at-the-drugstore, super-cheap street vendor to luxury.”
When she’d first considered the possibility of a masked near-future, Deihl found the prospect grim. “But I’m evolving very rapidly on this. And why shouldn’t you have a nice one? A black one, if you want to wear a dark coat, or one that’s a little bit lighter weight in the summer,” she says. “I think it might become like sunglasses.”
“I think [masks] might become like sunglasses”
In the right light, says Chris Hosmer, whose company Airpop, was making slick, athletic-looking masks for the Chinese market well before the coronavirus crisis, sunglasses seem far-fetched, too. “If sunglasses didn’t exist today and you were going to pitch an investor on sunglasses, you would sound insane,” he told Rose Eveleth at Vox last year. “‘Hey, we’re gonna put this thing that covers, like, the window to your soul, the most communicative part of your body; we’re gonna put something in front of it so that you can’t see it, and that thing is gonna essentially be able to protect you from your environment.’ They would be like, ‘What? That’s stupid. No one’s gonna do that!’”
Masks have hovered around the edges of fashion for years now, but they have not secured a place in the pantheon of luxury accessories. Alexander McQueen featured (relatively) wearable ones, and Martin Margiela has shown several notably less practical interpretations. In 2014, Chinese designer Yin Peng did a whole “smog couture” collection. They are still so far from being sunglasses.
That doesn’t mean designers aren’t trying. “I see it as the most important accessory of the coming year,” says Lia Kes, a New York City-based sustainable designer whose clothes I can’t afford, but whose masks I could. (Masks, like perfume and also sunglasses, are an entry-level item.) Like the rest of the fashion industry, she started making masks because people she knew needed masks. But now, she says, she can picture a place for masks in our post-pandemic future. “I haven’t completely figured out what it will look like a year from now, but this is my feeling,” she says. “Even after all this, I cannot imagine myself boarding a flight without a mask on.” And for all their many drawbacks, face coverings do afford some arguable benefits. They allow a certain relaxation of beauty standards, for example. They offer a sense of protection from the world, like headphones for your face.
So many of the standard ways we used to signal identity have been tabled. There is no reason to dress up because nobody is going anywhere. We used to express ourselves with our mouths and noses, but now we keep those neatly under wraps. The bold lip is definitively over, as a fashion statement, on account of nobody seeing it. “So what do you do?” asks Alison Matthews David, a fashion historian at Ryerson University in Toronto. “You’ll have to find other ways to be creative with your appearance.”
For example, have you considered masks?
We are only just beginning our collective mask journey. It is a process of discovery. Of all possible garments, masks are singularly intimate, a cross between underwear and your actual face. “This is a moment not only for designers but for the textile industry,” says David. “What are the weave structures? Can we design new fabrics?” On the whole, masks are still hot and miserable, but what if they weren’t?
“I’m still wearing the same mask I wore in medical school,” says Fields. “And literally, in three weeks, the nurses and the lay staff I work with figured out how to create masks that are more comfortable, and in all honesty, more fashionable.” There’s no reason to think the masks we have now are as good as masks could ever get. “I’ll bet if you have this conversation with somebody a year from now,” he tells me, “you’re going to hear things that you couldn’t even have imagined today.”
Niedenthal, the affective psychologist, is skeptical there is a textile innovation so transformative that it could turn masks, a symbol of mass death, into sunglasses, a symbol of the beach. A mask “means there’s a problem,” she tells me. “It’s not going to be something we do when everything is fine.”
What is fine, though, after this? There will still be colds. Flu season will still come every year. I hope I never wear a mask again. I also picture all the droplets from the diagrams. “In general, there’s a lot of forgetting around epidemics, even when that seems absolutely impossible,” Lincoln tells me. Masks faded quickly after 1918; we could forget again.
Deihl sees it playing out another way. We will normalize masks because we have to make reality more bearable. “Underlying so many things is this human need to — even when things are wrong — we want to put literally our best face on them,” she says. We want masks to mean something different, and so we’ll try to make them. “That’s why I think there’s going to be a transition,” and what was protective will become “a seasonal accessory.”
David puts it simply: “Fashion,” she tells me, “is good at transforming function into style.”
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.