The pandemic and lockdown have caused us all to drastically change the way we live our lives. We are staying away from each other more. We are slowing or stopping our social lives.
When we do venture out of our secure cocoons, we put on our masks and make our way cautiously through the scary world.
By covering our mouths, noses and chins, we are keeping ourselves and others safer. We know that. We protect ourselves from some of the exhaled particles from the other guy’s mouth and we protect him for breathing in some of ours.
But we’re missing out on a lot more than viral contaminants when we interact with masks on.
Think about your last trip to the grocery store. I know that for me, shopping is always a social experience. Just moving through the aisles, people exchange hellos, help each other reach the top shelf, or admire each others’ kids. Sometimes I exchange recipe ideas with people or ask if they like a certain product. At the very least, we always exchange a smile as we pass.
But with masks on, our voices are muffled and our words feel trapped. We can’t see the smiles or the lack of smiles. The result is that we don’t interact at all. People are barely making eye contact. We move through the store like the isolated being that we are, instead of seeing ourselves as part of a community.
Experts in the fields of psychology and linguistics have found that more than half of human communication is non-verbal. Our facial expressions, gestures, body language, and intonation all contribute to the clarity of our communication. The masks that we’re all using right now are deeply impacting our ability to connect with each other.
Clear masks, made of a material that would let us see faces, would let us once again exchange smiles, judge people’s moods and engage in simple greetings.
We also need to think about the many, many people who have hearing losses that range from very mild to severe. These people, including millions of school-aged kids, rely on lip-reading and facial reading (so-called “speech reading”) in order to understand their teachers. They need to carefully watch the faces of their classmates to read the subtleties of communication. Is this a joke or is it serious? The smile and facial expression will tell the child. They need to see and hear in order to know when it is their turn to speak.
Those children need everyone in their world to wear a clear mask. All of the kids in the class, all of the teachers, all of the specialists, and bus drivers and paraprofessionals and lunchroom workers and custodians and administrators. If kids with a hearing loss can’t see our faces, they CANNOT be asked to respond to us appropriately. How can any child follow directions they can’t hear or understand?
The need to read facial expressions is also vital for every person who falls along the autism spectrum. And to every person who has a non-verbal learning disability. These two groups of citizens struggle to interpret the non-verbal cues that make up so much of our communication. These folks will suffer far more than we “neurotypical” people when they are unable to see the subtle movements of lips and cheeks that are made under the masks.
Finally, my heart is going out to those who are victims of trauma. Whether that trauma came from abuse as a child, abuse at the hands of a partner, witnessing violence or a lifetime of neglect, this issue is vital for those people.
Hypervigilance is one of the key markers of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who have been through trauma are acutely tuned in to the subtle signs of danger.
When we take those signs away because we cover our faces in public interactions, we ask those people to either ignore their sense of danger or to read signals that we are not able to send.
We need clear masks.
We need them so that we can be friendly. We need them so that in the grocery store we see our neighbors, instead of vaguely hostile strangers.
We need clear masks so that if we interact with elderly people who don’t hear well and who are now processing language slowly, we do not ask more of them than they can give.
We must wear clear masks so that our hearing impaired and deaf neighbors and community members can see what we are saying.
This seems so simple to me. We need masks to stay safe. We desperately need to see people’s mouths when they are speaking. We need to be able to check each other’s smiles, frowns, grimaces and yawns.
Who is going to get behind a huge effort to create, manufacture and distribute medical masks with clear covers?