The Cultural Meaning of Masking

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As an anthropological linguist, I have been noticing how so few Americans, at least in my local area, are comfortable wearing a mask in public. Despite our state governor Cuomo’s executive order requiring all to wear masks or cloth facial coverings “in public,” in my semi-rural neighborhood and wider small city community few except essential workers who are assigned masks are actually wearing them, to the potential detriment of the whole population. Most instead are relying on “social distancing” by a six foot margin; that behavior is not uncomfortable, at least between strangers.

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I recognize this noncompliant behavior may have to do in part with the “cultural markedness” of masking. Since normally the average person would not wear a mask in public, then wearing one is “marked,” i.e. noticeably different. Further, we have negative cultural associations with people who wear masks: they might be hiding something or they could have criminal or “shady” intentions.  People who wear a mask have something to hide, we may unconsciously believe; they are being deceptive or pretending to be someone or something other than whom they really are.

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Now superheroes are the notable exceptions to our negative masking semantics. “Who was that masked man?” we asked after the Lone Ranger or Spiderman or Batman, for example, had saved the day. Superheroes mask because they are selfless, serving the common Good.

In these days of our confrontation with a deadly villainous global pandemic, to wear a mask is to protect not only yourself but everyone you interact with. Still many feel uncomfortable so they choose not to comply.

We need to establish a “markedness reversal;” to reframe the very meaning now of wearing a mask.

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Wearing a mask in public is a demonstration of humility and caring, of respect for others, of service to the common Good.  None of us knows (unless recently tested) if we have been infected. We might be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, and if so, we could be spreading the infection unknowingly.

Be a selfless Superhero!  Wear a mask in public.  You can know privately that when you do so, you are serving the common Good.

When you see someone else masking as you do, give a thumbs up! I would say smile, but of course that gesture may not show except for that kindly twinkle in your eyes. Thank one another. Continue to social distance, but  you can do so while acknowledging how the masks unite rather than separate you from your neighbor.

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We are confronting a common enemy, together.  We need one another.

Give yourself a superhero name or give your neighbor one.  Lovely Lily, Helpful Harry or Generous George.

We are in this together. Wear a mask!