America’s face-mask culture is changing, and their meaning changes too

The message is: I’m protecting you, you’re protecting me, I can feel safe," says Suki Xiao.

Suki Xiao and her partner were the only ones wearing masks on the bus that early March day in Vancouver, Canada, when a man sitting nearby started coughing. The other passengers on the bus fixed their nervous attention on the coughing man—but also on Xiao and her partners’ masked faces.

Xiao had been in grade school in China during the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003, when no one around her thought twice about putting on a mask in public. But so early in the coronavirus pandemic, people in North American cities were still unaccustomed to seeing masked faces. For many, masks signaled “disease,” as if the wearer had something to hide.

Sensing fear and hostility, and worried for their safety, the pair got off at the next stop.

As the impacts of coronavirus wend through societies, two major parts of our public lives— communication and culture—are being changed by one thing: a mask. How will people respond to the cues we get from faces when large parts of those faces are concealed? And how will cultures in which masks are not the norm adapt to this new reality?

Humans are “absolute experts at interpreting faces,” says Alexander Toderov, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Princeton University. We are “constantly, over the course of a lifetime, developing this expertise.”

His research has shown that people respond nearly instantaneously to new faces, forming judgments about other people’s character, emotions, and attitudes in less than a hundred milliseconds. Different parts of the face signal different emotions. The mouth is where most anger is expressed; disgust is signaled largely from wrinkling around the eyebrows and nose.

But we generally use the whole face to interpret emotion—which is why wearing masks for health and safety can initially present some social and cultural obstacles.

“A change in just one feature can change the perception of the whole face,” says Toderov.

Facial cues, hidden behind cloth

Generally, humans can read subtle facial cues well in familiar people, such as friends and family. But we’re not as good at reading strangers’ faces, says Agneta Fischer, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam. In one of her studies, when people couldn’t see a smiling person’s whole face, they attributed more negative emotions to the smiler. Without the cue from an upturned mouth and many other subtle changes within the rest of the face, smiling eyes weren’t so easily interpreted.

“If you’re in a sort of neutral situation with someone you don’t know, you’re looking for small signals…some face signals of friendliness or politeness,” she says. Humans often use those cues to mimic what the other person is doing, a social tool to smooth interactions. But it’s much harder to see those small signals from just in the eyes­. We can see them “only if your smile is very strong,” she says, demonstrating over Zoom with a wide grin.

These kinds of relatively neutral situations are the bread and butter of interactions in public spaces, such as the grocery store or on sidewalks, but Toderov says he isn’t too worried about the long-term impacts of mask-wearing on communication.

“We might think we’re looking just at the face to read emotions, but in real life we have a lot of context from body and other things,” he says. Our brains can compensate for the losses from facial cues, especially as we get more practice.

Fischer and Toderov say they’ve seen people wearing masks add all kinds of other cues, from excessive, energetic waving to extra-explicit friendly language, to help themselves be understood.

Beyond the face

More concerning are the issues of stereotyping, racial profiling, and xenophobia that have emerged since masks have become more common, says Stacy Torres, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

People tend to read character traits, such as trustworthiness or aggression, from faces—though over and over, psychologists have demonstrated that those inferences are often wrong, and in many cases will reinforce an observer’s stereotypes.

Masks may exacerbate the problem. Black men have been targeted recently for wearing masks in public, and many fear more racial profiling from police. Chinese-Americans have reported harassment and discrimination whether or not they’re wearing masks.

On the bus, Xiao felt the weight of that stereotyping so strongly that she knew she needed to disembark. The irony, she says, is that to her, a mask is a signal of social solidarity.

“When everyone is wearing masks, I feel respected,” she says. “The message is: I’m protecting you, you’re protecting me, I can feel safe.”

Masks take on more new meanings now

The message that this virus is a collective problem that mask-wearing can help address has slowly taken root during the past few weeks in Western countries unaccustomed to the practice.

Widespread use of masks is critical not just for health reasons but also for social ones, says Mitsutoshi Horii, a researcher at the U.K.’s Chaucer College and Japan’s Shumei University. When only sick people or the particularly vulnerable wear masks, it singles them out, making them targets for fear and stigma. Masks also play a personal role for wearers, offering a sense of agency and control in a world where routines have been upended by the virus, Horii says. (Find out what works for DIY masks and what doesn’t.)

And by spreading the culture and practice of mask-wearing, people are showing solidarity with each other, cooperating to ease the strain on their fellow humans. In an April survey conducted immediately after the CDC’s most recent guidance, 39 percent of respondents reported buying a mask, and 44 percent said they’d worn one outside recently. (Why did 17th-century doctors wear these weird beaked masks during the plague?)

Gordon Kraft-Todd, a researcher at Boston College’s Morality Lab, also sees mask-wearing as an impulse to engage in a larger movement.

“There’s this cooperation aspect in wearing masks, a sense of contributing to the public good,” he says. “Anyone can say anything they want about their values, and often there’s no consequence—but there’s certain kinds of actions that show your beliefs.”

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