Irish Examiner view: Masks will affect

Mandatory face coverings mean words are muffled and the full range of facial expressions is no longer available as an aid to interpretation
Irish Examiner view: Masks will affect
Face masks mean that many people are finding communication more difficult. 

It is a sign of the extraordinary times that masks, once the preserve of protesters, paramilitaries, and criminals, have now become a symbol of public compliance.

A few short months ago, for instance, pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong risked arrest for wearing masks. Now, you are more likely to be arrested for not wearing face-coverings, which are mandatory in more than 50 countries as the world struggles to contain the coronavirus.

Here, gardaí have already escorted two passengers from trains in separate incidents, but Justice Minister Helen McEntee has said people are generally abiding by the rules.

It will be interesting to see how we negotiate our new mask-wearing norm as they become obligatory in shops and other indoor places.

So far, masks have not become politically charged as they have in the US, where some have turned a refusal to cover up into a bare-faced protest about the loss of personal liberty.

We might prepare for some ‘mask rage’, though. In other countries that has ranged from a few disapproving looks and angry words to extreme violence, which claimed the life of a French bus driver, Philippe Monguillot, 59, who died after he was assaulted by passengers refusing to wear masks.

Irish public transport and retail workers are right to feel anxious but let’s hope the public will show the same willingness to heed advice as it did during lockdown.

It remains to be seen how we cope with perhaps the biggest challenge of masking up: The barrier to communication.

Charities for people with hearing loss have called for transparent face shields, or transparent windows in masks, to be used by people providing public services. It’s a good idea.

Even those who are not hard of hearing are finding communicating in masks difficult. Words spoken through a mask are often muffled but, more than that, they are spoken into a world that can no longer rely on the complete range of facial expressions.

Studies have shown that the eyes and mouth are the most expressive regions of the face but now we have been robbed of the latter.

It seems more important than ever, then, to try to compensate by taking the possible gruff edges off masked exchanges in public. A smile used to say a lot but now we might think of what we can say with pitch, tone, body language, and gestures.

Spare a thought, too, for those who have to wear masks all day. Some businesses have recognised the challenges and are giving staff several short ‘mask breaks’ during the day.

But there is also an unexpected upside. Face mask fashion has become a thing. It has even become a conversation-starter in queues. “Where did you get your mask?” is a common question.

Another is: “How do you wear a mask and stop your glasses fogging up?” As yet, there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory answer, although anti-fogging wipes for glasses show promise.

It is also heartening to see many businesses showing ingenuity by producing a range of masks, often donating a portion of the profits to charity.

And, if accounts from Italy hold true, we will start to make eye contact more often. Expect a surge in sales of full-volume mascara.

Whatever happens, let’s hope we all keep our eye on the public-health prize and mask up.

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