I considered whether to put on a mask at the party and, as a doctor, did so. People glanced at me hesitantly, noticing. I felt awkward.
“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 eyeglasses, cloak facial expressions, hamper communication and are inconvenient. More than once I’ve arrived at a store and realized I forgot to bring one and had to return home.
As a psychiatrist, I have also seen how they create complex interpersonal dynamics. Many of us now have to determine regularly whether to wear one with all family, friends or others — whether they and we are all “safe” and trust we have all been safe with others. These decisions can be hard. 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 urban 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.
Written by: By Robert L. Klitzman, M.D., Updated Sept. 11, 2020; NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/10/well/live/mask-shaming.html