Masks have a long history of protecting people from the spread of disease.
During the Black Plague in the 1600s, doctors wore a hollow beak-like mask, stuffed with dried flowers, herbs, or sponges soaked in vinegar to protect them from the foul odors that were believed to spread disease–an ingenious invention to protect doctors who faced deadly diseases. Over time, the protective masks took on an ominous and sinister overtone.
In modern American society, masks retain a whiff of the sinister, think bank robber, terrorist, or scary medical procedure. I became aware of how masks trigger me as, desperate for fresh air and exercise, I took a walk along a public street among throngs of masked people. Dodging and weaving, no one was quite sure of the etiquette of social distancing.
Two kinds of people I found particularly upsetting: Those who shuffled by looking at the ground, and those who pushed past brusquely, eyes staring straight ahead. Their lack of acknowledgement made me feel insignificant, shunned and socially disconnected. I returned home ruminating on what it feels like to wear a mask in an attempt to protect myself from an invisible, insidious enemy that uses other human beings as its carriers. Wearing a mask in public reminds me of my own vulnerability.
With all this in mind, I sat down at my computer to read an email sent to me by a friend in Ireland, about a group of ingenious doctors at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin. Amidst the chaos in the hospital during the pandemic, doctors realized that the PPE masks made it hard for patients to identify the staff who treated them from day to day. To alleviate confusion and fear, doctors pinned 8×10 pictures of their faces to their gowns. It lifted the patients’ spirits to be able to identify their doctor and to be reminded of the human being behind the mask.
“If doctors who face danger every day, who wear masks as well as full protective gear, can find a way to connect with patients amidst the chaos, then surely, from the comfort of my home, I can come up with ways to connect with others, wearing just a mask,” I thought. Masks now occupy a permanent place in our society, and we need mask etiquette that allows people to connect.
And so here are some suggestions for mask etiquette in the time of covid-19:
- Make eye contact and smile with your eyes.
- Be aware of your body language.
- Acknowledge people, by a wave of the hand, a nod of the head, or a vocal greeting.
- Consider wearing a fabric mask that expresses your personality.
- Identify yourself to people you know who may not recognize you with a mask on, like clerks at the grocery store or delivery people.
- Maintain social distance even when wearing your mask. Be considerate of the elderly or infirm.
As we all become comfortable with this “new normal,” unwritten rules of social distancing etiquette will emerge. Until then, using our creativity and common sense, we can find ways to connect with each other despite the masks that keep us apart.