The Problem With Masks

Some people refuse to wear masks, but for the most part, we’re all wearing masks in public places. I did some grocery shopping in Walmart today, wearing my mask. I passed other shoppers, making brief eye contact. I gave a polite smile as we do when we see another human, aiming to be pleasant. It occurred to me that they could not see my smile, and I could not see if they returned the polite gesture in kind. After realizing that we were able to exchange face to face glances because I was walking the wrong way down the aisle, I wondered if in fact, there had been a frown under the mask instead of a smile. I couldn’t read their faces.

It is not a new condition to lack the ability to read facial expressions. Some people suffer from face blindness, regardless of masks. Face blindness is a brain disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. Face blindness is thought to be the result of brain damage or impairment. Depending upon the severity of this condition, some people may only have difficulty recognizing a familiar face, others will be unable to discriminate between unknown faces, while still others may not even be able to distinguish a face as being different from an object. Some people with the disorder are unable to recognize their own face. People with this disorder generally compensate to recognize people with extra layers of information such as gait, voice, eye color, clothing, or hairstyle.

In this time of the Covid19 pandemic, and without the ability to read facial expression, we miss normal social cues. Mouth expressions and movements are essential in reading people. For example, the expression on a person’s face can help determine if we trust or believe what an individual is saying. One study found that the most trustworthy facial expression involved a slight raise of the eyebrows and a slight smile. Another study found that individuals who had narrower faces and more prominent noses were more likely to be perceived as intelligent. People with smiling, joyful expressions are judged as being more intelligent than those with angry expressions.

There are other difficulties that masks pose. We may not recognize our friends and thereby lose an opportunity for social connection. More importantly, we may not know if we are in danger if we can’t judge emotion. We will not be able to determine whether to approach or avoid.

Incidentally, men are less likely to wear a mask than women. A new survey of 2,459 people living in the US has found that men are less likely to don face masks because they believe wearing one is “shameful,” “a sign of weakness,” and “not cool.” The survey, conducted by American and British researchers, also found that men are less likely to believe they’ll be significantly impacted by Covid-19 than women. In truth, there is evidence showing that men are much more likely to die from coronavirus.

Men are not alone in feeling strange wearing masks. However, one study found that the more people use masks, the less strange it feels for the people to wear masks, and so the higher the acceptance for using them.

What are we to do? We will learn to compensate. We will rely on gait, voice, eye color, clothing, or hairstyle to recognize our acquaintances.

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