Views from the Vicarage...
What’s Your Relationship With Masks?
Masks can be uncomfortable and hot, and they can even steam up your glasses. They hide facial expressions and can get lost or dirty. Still, health experts agree that wearing a mask in public is an important way to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In some parts of the country and the world, mask wearing has become routine. If you walk down the street, four out of five people you see would be wearing a mask. In other places, though, wearing a mask is much less common.
What’s your relationship with masks during the pandemic? Do you wear them when you go outside — or inside public buildings? Do you have a favourite mask? Do your family members wear masks outside the house? Do the people in your community?
In “If You See Someone Not Wearing a Mask, Do You Say Something?,” Robert L. Klitzman, M.D., writes about social pressure and the decision to wear or not wear a mask in the current era of Covid-19. He begins with an anecdote about attending a party:
“We’re supposed to be wearing masks,” the host said as I entered a birthday party in Pennsylvania recently. He rolled his eyes and waved his hand in the air, as if to say, “Whatever. We know we should wear them, but we know we’re all OK.”
I glanced around. No one was wearing one, though a few masks dangled loosely around people’s necks or sat on tables near plates and glasses.
I considered whether to put one on and, as a doctor, did so. People glanced at me hesitantly, noticing. I felt awkward.
Two people strolled over, about two to three feet from me, unmasked and drinking beers. They seemed a bit uneasy, as if guilty about their uncovered faces, and I felt as if they were wondering whether I was somehow therefore judging them, or didn’t fully trust them, or was merely being unsociable.
The chocolate birthday cake looked delicious and I was hungry. But I couldn’t eat or drink with the mask on, and debated whether to take it off, and reluctantly did so.
Other people walked over to say hello. I took two steps backward, but they then stepped forward. I pondered whether to re-cover my face. If I did, would I then appear overly nerdy, anxious, neurotic or “uncool,” or should that not matter, since I would be protecting other attendees — even though they didn’t seem to care — and me?
Clearly, masks are crucial in protecting us and others from Covid-19, but no one likes wearing them. They’re hot and uncomfortable, impede breathing, steam up glasses, cloak facial expressions, hamper communication and are inconvenient. More than once I’ve arrived at a shop and realized I forgotten to bring one and had to return home.
Most people, I suspect, have at times not worn masks when they should have. Surveys indicate that as of late July, of those who attended gatherings of more than 10 people, more than half were unmasked and that 46 percent of city residents usually didn’t wear masks when they were within six feet of people outside their households.
Social groups have also been creating and reinforcing their own norms around masks through subtle and not-so-subtle pressures and expectations. “Whenever my extended family gets together now,” a friend told me, “we argue about whether we all need to wear masks. My brothers keep saying, ‘What, you don’t trust us?’”
As the sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out, within groups, people generally seek to “pass” and to avoid behaving in ways that others may see as stigmatizing, “tainting” or bad. Many people hesitate to don masks because of implicit group pressures and concerns about what others may think. Generally, people want to be liked and accepted, not rejected or shunned. They seek to appear friendly and open, not hostile, paranoid or afraid. Yet these deep-seated emotional reactions are now hurting us in ways that public health experts and the rest of us urgently need to address far more than we have.
Face coverings – masks have been a feature of the year just ended. A year marked by isolating (hiding) away from ordinary day-to-life. We have had to learn to ‘distance’, to stay away from people. These are all things (once Lockdowns are over), that we will need to unlearn. We will need to regain a sense of community, for we are social beings, people who care for one another – for that is the essence of the Christian message.
I’m looking forward to unmasking in 2021, and beginning to rebuild the Church and wider society. Wishing you all a happy and healthier 2021!
Your Friend and Vicar