When Mollie Ruben slips on her face mask, her behaviour and demeanour change, near instantly. “I just shut down completely. I know I can’t emit and express the cues I want to.”
As we tiptoe out of lockdown, mask-wearing is likely to become a large part of our new “normal” or abnormal world. Ruben, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maine, who studies non-verbal communication, wonders how much blocking half our faces, particularly our mouths, will interrupt the smoothness of natural social interactions and communication.
“There are really two dimensions here,” Ruben said from her home state. It’s not just about the perceiver, the person viewing you. It’s also about the self, the person wearing the mask, which further complicates things.
“The use of masks has perhaps been one of the most contentious aspects of the world’s response to the pandemic,” reads a reopening paper released Friday by the Ontario Medical Association. Non-medical and homemade masks, in tandem with physical distancing and good hygiene practises, are among the five public health pillars required for a safe return, the OMA says. While there’s no perfect evidence, “if these masks prevent even a limited amount of transmission of COVID-19, lives could be saved.”
After weeks of insisting asymptomatic Canadians need not wear masks when leaving home, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, proclaimed in early April that non-medical masks are an “additional measure that you can take to protect others around you.”
It’s kind of taboo when people are not in masks in public spaces like grocery stores
Masks are ubiquitous in countries like Taiwan and South Korea, which managed to contain COVID-19 without lockdowns. The mayor of Los Angeles has ordered face masks be worn at all times outside the home. France, with its years-long ban on burqas and total face concealment, has made masks compulsory in high schools and riding the metro. Last week, French president Emmanuel Macron appeared at a school behind a navy mask adorned with the stripes of the French flag. “Face coverings, the design seemed to suggest, are fused to the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity,” the Washington Post reported.
To some, masks are more fused to notions of “forced conformity,” an infringement of civil liberties. In Michigan, a state that has seen armed protestors demonstrate against stay-at-home orders, a security guard at a Family Dollar store was shot dead after asking a customer to wear a face mask, which the state has mandated for entering enclosed public spaces. Two weeks ago, legislators in Oklahoma, had to nervously walk back an emergency order mandating face coverings, mere hours after introducing it, after people threatened violence.
Outside Asian and other communities, mask-wearing can feel awkward to some, an initial self-consciousness that could change as social norms shift. Mass masking could become a symbol of solidarity — us against a steely virus. To be effective, “wearing masks in the community will only bring meaningful population benefits if practiced by most people,” KK Cheng, a professor of public health at Birmingham University and colleagues wrote in the Lancet.
Ruben, who fully endorses face masks to help slow COVID-19’s spread, worries that as economies reopen, “there may be some false sense of security that because things are reopening, things are getting better — ‘I don’t need to wear this mask.’
In Maine, face coverings are required in grocery and retail stores, pharmacies, playgrounds, busy parking lots, lines for take-out and transport by ferry, bus or train. “It’s kind of taboo when people are not in masks in public spaces like grocery stores,” Ruben says of her city.
“I don’t know if it’s shaming. It could just be anxiety that this person isn’t wearing a mask — ‘what’s that telling me about their habits and how safe they’ve been, and could they potentially be a carrier?’”
To learn how partial masking affects our social perceptions and biases, Ruben is gathering selfies of people with and without masks. She’ll use that database for experiments in which “perceivers” — volunteers — will be asked their first-impression of the people in the photos.
Humans have been hardwired through evolution to “lock on” to faces, “to process the mental state of people around us by analyzing their facial expressions,” British psychiatrist Raj Persaud wrote in Psychology Today. “There is clear survival value in noticing from a frown that someone is getting angry with us, long before they throw a spear, or dump us as lovers.”
For now, Ruben is interested in first-impression judgments: When we see someone in a mask, how does that change our perceptions of their warmth, their competence, their intelligence? How threatening or non-threatening when compared to the same person, unmasked? Are masked men perceived as more intimidating than women?
“We speculate that, depending on the norm, masks could signal competence — that this person is intelligent, is following public health,” Ruben said. “But it also could promote more of a coldness dimension, because the mouth region gives us so much important information about emotion.”
Ruben wonders if we’ll risk losing more social connection. “That’s not to say we shouldn’t do it, but I wonder if there are other ways we can increase perceptions of closeness, without increasing actual risk,” like transparent masks or masks with a photo of the person’s smiling face.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020