Masks have become a habit: What does this mean for us and our ability to communicate?

Chloe Baxter

Augustana students and those around the globe are still abiding by mask-wearing mandates originally implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Masks are used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but have had an additional impact on social interaction.

This is seen most prominently in the transition of mask wearing into a habit within the social sphere, with most establishments requiring those who enter to wear a mask.

While this contributes to mask wearing becoming a habit, it has also led to the creation of a taboo aimed towards those who do not wear a mask ─ impacting the interaction they have with others and overall perception.

Speaking in terms of perception, wearing a mask sends a signal to those around you pertaining to how you feel about mask wearing, a controversial topic today, which can influence the opinions of others indirectly.

Sharon Kirkey of the National Post in an interview with Mollie Ruben, a University of Maine-based assistant professor of psychology, explores the impact that mask wearing has had on our perception of others.

“We speculate that, depending on the norm, masks could signal competence ─ that this person is intelligent, is following public health,” Ruben said. “But it also could promote more of a coldness dimension, because the mouth region gives us so much important information about emotion.”

The habitual wearing of masks has a clear impact on the way that we communicate with one another, specifically regarding our perception of social cues and emotions.

For example, smiling is typically seen as a positive response, demonstrating a person’s happiness or joy. A smile or additional facial expressions typically used to communicate are not able to occur because a mask covers the lower part of the face.

The impact of this can be seen in the short-term in the process of making a connection with a person becoming far more challenging. It’s also seen in the long-term, with the way we communicate and interact being permanently altered due to mask-wearing.

Sandy Ong of BBC Future speaks to psychologist Samar Al Zayer about the future of mask-wearing and the possibility of there being effective communication even with masks.

“Over-communicate – use more words than you normally would, and ask more questions, to make sure you’re correctly picking up on the other person’s emotions. Learn how to use your other senses and body language, too,” Al Zayer said.

Common elements of social interaction are over-dramatized in response to mask wearing as a habit as we adapt, in order to maintain effective communication. This is seen in an increased or heightened focus on the eyes and mannerisms of the person you are speaking with, due to your inability to observe the lower half of the face.

Overall, the habit of mask-wearing in social settings has had a clear, crucial impact on the ways that we socialize and our ability to do so. This is seen in our perception of others and their views on topics such as the wearing of masks, influencing our interactions in the process.

Mask wearing has also affected the way through which we perceive social cues and the emotions of others. All of these changes in the social environment have resulted in the need for us to adapt in our communication methods to ensure that we communicate effectively.