The task of wearing masks is not really a task at all
OPINION: Something strange happened when I found myself in the hospital the other day.
It sounds dramatic, but it sometimes happens during the pollen season. I had had an asthma attack, it was serious, so we called an ambulance.
Masked paramedics arrived, gave me a tour, and took me to Lower Hutt Hospital. The masked triage nurse took my vital signs and walked through the emergency room to a room, then a masked nurse came over to give me an x-ray.
I was masked too, although I was asked to swap my cloth mask for a blue and white paper one, as they are usually drier and more sterile.
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Finally, many hours and ounces of steroids later, I was fired by a doctor who wore a white mask that in no way obscured the fact that he was about 13 years old – I never thought I would. would get so old the age of emergency room doctors would shock me, but it seems that day has come. I digress …
None of this is what makes the visit strange. With the addition of a lot of masks and Covid precautions, these are the kind of health issues that occur every day in hospitals around the world.
What’s weird is that when I think back to that 19 hour vacation in the hospital, I remember everyone’s faces. Not just their eyes or their hair, but their whole face as if no one was wearing a mask.
It’s almost as if my oxygen starved, adrenaline-flooded brain refused to see the masks and just filled in the blanks with the nose, mouth, and chin as it seemed appropriate.
I always thought I had a good face for faces, but like international air travel and passing someone you just met in a bar it might be a thing of the past, thanks for nothing Covid.
The task of living with masks will test how well we, as a species, can adapt to seeing only half of other people’s faces for the foreseeable future.
I know with good authority that human beings are damn good at adapting, which is why with our thin skin and guilty claws we are at the top of all food chains. A little piece of cloth is not going to slow us down. Law?
Well, according to a 2020 Canadian study, masks decrease our ability to recognize people’s faces by up to 15%, with some participants reporting that masks left them having trouble recognizing people they had met before, even ‘they knew them well.
A Scottish study, currently under peer review, tentatively supported these findings, indicating that surgical masks can make even the most familiar faces difficult to recognize.
It’s not just the recognition that goes out the window when we wear masks. A study on German speakers published earlier this year found that it can sometimes be more difficult to remember what people tell you if they are wearing a mask.
Researchers now believe that part of the process of memorizing spoken language includes encoding the shapes and movements of the speaker’s face. Considering how often my foot is stuck in my mouth, this news is a relief. But still, spirit: blown away.
Of course, for the deaf community, the prospect of an entirely obscured future is a nightmare. We will have to find a way to ensure that deaf people are not excluded from public life because of mask warrants. Compassion will be key, as will our coping skills.
None of this makes me anti-masks, however. On the contrary, as someone who is often quite anxious in public, I like to have something behind to hide.
If I haven’t combed my hair or am wearing my most scruffy clothes, I like knowing that no one will know it’s me, drool in the supermarket in pajamas. If I’m feeling a little bad and just don’t want to chat with someone I know somewhere, I can hide behind the mask.
It’s also a fun irony that wearing a mask makes it easier, politely but firmly, to ask people to put on their masks too, like an extra layer of Karen power when you’re in confined spaces.
On occasion, I have been so comfortable in a mask that I forgot to take it off. I haven’t yet sunk half of a white dish on my forehead while trying to drink through it, but I’ve had a few close calls.
More important than all of this, while so much of the pandemic has been about waiting and seeing what happens to us, choosing to wear a mask, like getting the shot, feeling active and engaged. It’s like doing your part to keep your community safe.
And we adapt. I have noticed that people crinkle their crow’s feet and shake their noses, to show that they are smiling behind the mask. People speak louder and more clearly so that they can be heard more clearly too.
Yes, there are people who will not wear masks. Not to be confused with people who cannot wear masks, they will be the ones who will definitely try to make eye contact with anyone wearing a mask, daring them to comment on their bare face.
Unless it’s really dangerous, like in an elevator or on public transport, if they catch my eye, I deal with them by saying a “hello!” and ignoring them. Do not give them the pleasure of your displeasure, as my Nana used to say. Kill them with kindness. Don’t feel bad around these people. Wearing a mask is the right thing to do. They’re the ones who look like selfish morons.
I now have a wardrobe of masks. All purchased from local manufacturers, some flowery, a superb piece of green linen. I’m considering adding a silk one to the wardrobe, apparently it’s gentler on the skin if you wear a lot. I even invested in one of those little silicone bridges that pull tissue away from my mouth, so I can wear lipstick without smearing it on my chin.
So, the task of wearing masks is not really a task at all. In return, we get a safer community, and one more thing …
According to another study, without the lower half of our faces, the gaze naturally focuses on a person’s eyes, often the most attractive and prettiest part of any face, the windows to the soul if you will. That’s why the researchers found that while we might not recognize ourselves as easily, masks can have a pleasant recognition side effect: we find ourselves much more attractive.