Face-masks are slowly becoming more commonplace in the west, now that we’re several months into the COVID-19 crisis.
Per the technology adoption curve below, the adoption of face-masks has been tracking a slow ascent. It was initially met by condescension and reluctance by most — including myself — because in some ways, it was symbolically against many of the freedoms and characteristics that shape our society.
When it came to the early adoption of face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, people who had lived or suffered through SARS or H1N1 before it tended to be the early adopters, as defined by Everett Rogers in the technology adoption curve.
Today, because of the mixed messages we’re getting from politicians, health authorities and the media (“you should wear a mask to protect others”, “you shouldn’t wear a mask because they don’t protect you”) it’s unlikely that we’ll get to market saturation anytime soon — but that’s not the point of this article.
The point is what you might learn about yourself when you wear a mask…and take it off.
Buoyed on by studies and experiments such as the one below which shows that wearing a mask helps to stem the spread of germs from yourself to others — for you could be an asymptomatic carrier, not know it, and pass it on to other more vulnerable people — I felt a sense of duty to my community to wear a mask.
I did this not just because it would decrease my transmission of germs to others, but because it also serves as a signalling mechanism.
One of the main reason people don’t wear masks is not just because of the above-mentioned mixed messages, but because of a sense of social awkwardness that comes with it.
As in the famous ‘dancing man’ video, in which a lone dancer can be seen strutting his stuff in an open field before eventually being joined by a first follower and shortly thereafter, everybody else, the more people that wear masks the more it will become socially acceptable.
It’s a little like the ‘broken windows’ crimonology theory.
The theory states that visible signs of crime — such as broken windows — and anti-social behaviour create an environment that encourages further crime. In this case, the broken windows becomes an analogy for not wearing a mask.
Buoyed on by my newfound sense of duty to my community, I set out to go for a long 10 kilometre walk on the morning of Easter Sunday — one of the numerous things I do in order to not go crazy during lockdown, as well as to think.
Despite my best efforts to ‘smile with my eyes’, I found myself on the receiving end of many a strange look and coy smiles from other pedestrians who have thus far decided not to wear a mask. This didn’t really bother me but I couldn’t help but notice the irony here because I was ultimately wearing a mask to protect them.
Being from Melbourne — arguably the world’s coffee capital — I did as most of my fellow Melbournians do and popped by a cafe for a take-away espresso coffee about an hour into my walk.
I temporarily took off said mask to enjoy a strong latte from Hurricane Handsome, a cafe in the beach-side suburb of Port Melbourne which now had a limit of 2 people inside the cafe at any time.
Having grown accustom to weird looks over the previous hour, I was conscious of a feeling of being different or strange — as if, something was wrong with me.
I kept walking along with my coffee, and every time somebody looked in my general direction I was coming to the conclusion that they were doing so because I was wearing a mask…. only, I had taken the mask off.
But the feeling of wearing a mask was still with me. You might say I was still wearing an invisible mask.
Coming to this realisation made me consider all of the invisible masks we still carry with us, even though they were removed long ago, or were only ever an over-blown figment of our imaginations.
As neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky wrote in Behave, our behaviour is influenced by many things — genetics, foetal conditioning, birth, upbringing, past experience and environment.
As such, our sense of self and how we see the world and others can, in large part, go back to our experiences growing up — especially insofar as our insecurities are concerned.
Perhaps we were bullied in school.
Perhaps we concocted less than flattering ideas about ourselves.
Whatever the case, we are more likely than not — unless we’re completely narcissistic — to have carried with us into adulthood insecurities pertaining to our physical appearance, social status or intelligence.
And I’m not short on them myself.
For example, I had been bullied in primary school for things such as having a prominent Eastern European nose. And I know that, despite my best efforts and as ridiculous as this might sound, that this is something that sometimes creeps up and colours the stories I tell myself when I first meet someone (“are they looking at my nose?!”).
But I also know that the only person ‘looking at my nose’ is probably just me.
My above-mentioned experience of continuing to wear an invisible mask, highlights both how quickly a certain self-image can take hold in the mind, and more importantly, how wrong and unfounded that self-image can be.
As legendary motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar once said, “you are who you think other people think you are”.
I guess the lesson here is to show up as the person you want to be, instead of letting deep-seated insecurities colour your interactions with others, your sense of self, and your behaviour in life.
Remind yourself that you’ve shed your mask long ago — whatever it is symbolic of — that other people are no longer seeing it, and that it’s time you stopped seeing it too.