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To mask or not to mask?

Updated: Oct 5

Now I am going to be really transparent here, and admit that my recent decision to begin wearing a fabric face mask didn’t actually stem from personal concern over the virus, but from societal pressure to don one. Here in London, I had quickly gone from the majority to the minority in terms of not wearing one, and with that came some uneasy and uncomfortable feelings (and looks), especially when in places like the grocery store. I have been strictly adhering to the #stayhome, #physicaldistancing and hand washing guidelines imposed in the United Kingdom, and to be honest I thought that was enough. I never thought I would be going that step further and wearing a mask. But if my choice to wear a face covering was significantly driven by societal pressure, what other reasons might be guiding people's decisions to wear, or not to wear a face mask, and what about some of the psychology behind this rather humble piece of PPE.


Natural rebellion

Wearing a face mask has become mandatory in some countries, to be worn by individuals when they leave their homes, and in particular when they enter more confined spaces like shops or on public transport. While in other countries (like the UK) it is merely a recommendation.


When people are told to do something, regardless of the reasons, the natural response is some form of rebellion - think about the common example of telling someone not to push that big red button… uh oh, too late. They pushed it. Why is this?


In a nutshell, we humans are in many ways predisposed to resist being controlled. We pursue things for our own interest, so naturally we will combat anything that may stop us from achieving this. So some individuals may feel that being told to wear something specific like a mask is putting a limit on their freedom.


Symbolism

We have heard it before, there is a real interconnected relationship between clothing, mind and body, and enclothed cognition provides supports for this.


When considering face masks, we may associate these with feelings of fear and vulnerability. Wearing one may be viewed as an admission of fear, not only to ourselves but also to the outside world. I mean is there a better a symbol of this pandemic than the face mask?


Having to accept a new normal

The idea of everyone wearing masks may represent the loss of the old way of life, and having to accept this new normal. We may have seen snippets of countries slowly relaxing their lockdown guidance and beginning their return to the new “normal”. This may include things like going out to coffee, sitting apart, and being served by waitstaff in face masks. This may be hard to accept.

Limiting communication

Facial expression is universal, playing a key role in communication, and conveying emotion.


The importance of the face during conversations can be supported by the discovery of mirror neurons, which basically indicate that when you observe someone perform an action (or express an emotion), your brain responds similarly by firing the same neurons associated with that action. For example, when we see someone smile or frown, part of our own brain reacts, smiling or frowning also. The wearing of face masks makes this process harder as your cues are limited.

Therefore, paralinguistic communication has never been more important.

An example of adapting to this limitation is the mask created by Ashley Lawrence, of Eastern Kentucky University, who is studying deaf and hard of hearing education, and the development of a mask featuring a clear panel over the mouth for the deaf, or hearing impaired, who have more of a reliance on lip and facial cues.


Identity and self expression

I have written before about our clothing choices being an expression of our self and our identity, and how we choose to present ourselves to the outside world. The same could definitely be said for masks.


They aren’t going anywhere any time soon. So it's only a matter of time (if they haven't already) before they simply slip into the category of mainstream “accessory”, considered alongside jewellery, hats, bags and socks. With this comes the potential to choose from different options to accomodate our outfits for the day, expressing our personalities, and style - just like any other accessory. There are already an abundance of different patterns, colours, and even styles out there (even ones up for personalising).


Political statement

The decision to wear, or not wear a mask, within the United States of America is in some instances a political statement - an “us verses them” mentality. Those choosing to wear a mask may be associated with the political left, viewing the pandemic as a legitimate threat, while those without a face covering are often linked to the right, following President Donald Trump's example to not wear a face mask and the downplaying of the seriousness of the Coronavirus.


The face mask has also been adopted as a type of message board and form of political activism, displaying messages such as "Vote".


What have been your experiences with face masks and coverings where you are?


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