Don’t get me wrong — there are many more important things to be upset about these days. But there’s just something that bugs me about seeing someone driving alone in a car with a mask on.
Before you rush to judgement, hear me out. It’s not that I have any problem with people going above and beyond to flatten the curve. It’s just that I miss seeing other people’s faces.
I don’t think I’m the only one.
By now most of us are accustomed to donning our face masks any time we venture out in public. And that’s a good thing, as evidence continues to mount that aside from avoiding face-to-face interactions entirely, wearing a mask may be the single most important thing we can do to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
However, as a teacher of young children, I am keenly aware of the role non-verbal cues play in the development of emotional intelligence. Before the pandemic — in a past life, it seems — students looked to me countless times a day for approval and cues on appropriate behavior. A smile, a frown, a grimace, or a smirk all go a long way in communicating feelings.
Thankfully, video conferencing tools enable teachers and students to express themselves using their faces — even as classrooms remain virtual. Still, the official mandate for schools to resume online fell heavy on my heart. Though I know it was the right call from a public health perspective, it pains me to standby and watch as students continue to lose opportunities for both academic and social-emotional learning.
During the summer, I considered ways to minimize the impact of the social alienation that the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking on our community. Now that the school year is here, I am finding that my ideas, though well intended, fall short. Leading a class in the era of the coronavirus is fraught with more problems than I can find solutions for. However, the most pressing question I face — “How can I minimize my student’s anxiety?” — has led me on a personal quest to find new ways to model calmness for my students, especially since the fear of infection, and the masks that remind us of this, can be triggering for so many.
The answer I’ve arrived at is a simple one. I believe finding a mask that tells the world something about you — what you look like and stand for — is a small but effective way to bring comfort to myself and those around me. Furthermore, I believe it can help combat negative trains of thought associated with mask wearing.
A 2013 clinical trial in Hong Kong found that patients saw mask-wearing doctors as “uncaring.” The inability to see a doctor’s facial expressions also affected patient behavior, and ultimately influenced their health.
The long-term, emotional distancing effects of face masks are not fully known. But according to the Brookings Institution’s Education Plus Development blog, young children who rely on smiles and frowns from their parents, are currently struggling to interpret their world when they can’t see another’s, or reveal their own, countenance.
A person’s well being is reflected back to him from within his community. And while our rational minds know that wearing a mask is a necessity, but our limbic systems, which control our emotions, register a keen sense of tribal separation when we encounter individuals with obscured faces. Numerous studies confirm what we know intuitively — empathy is felt when we can see a person’s facial expressions.
According to medical doctors Raj Persuad and Peter Bruggen, the psychology of wanting to read facial expressions has its roots in evolution. “We analyze the mental states of people around us by analyzing their facial expressions,” they wrote in their joint blog, Slightly Blighty, on Psychology Today. There is clear survival value in noticing from a frown that someone is angry with us, long before they throw a spear or dump us as lovers.”
Mask makers have capitalized on the human need for self-expression by creating products that are customized to reflect the wearer’s individuality. For example, canvasdiscount.com is now offering custom print face masks to those seeking to express themselves through their facewear. Another company has taken personal expression to a literal level: xnito.com whose tagline is “Reveal Yourself,” has an app that allows people to create a mask that features a picture of their actual face, so that when they wear their mask they are still completely visible to others.
I know that none of these mask-makers will be able to fix the tattered economy, put out the numerous wildfires raging across the state, or heal the divisions currently tearing at the fabric of our democracy. But, after all we’ve been through this year, sometimes all we can do is look for ways to turn lemons into lemonade. Bringing a spot of color and a touch of creativity to the monotony of our new normal couldn’t hurt — and who knows? It just might make someone’s day.
Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, social distancing mandates, and the economic fallout of COVID-19 are impacting people. Read more essays here.