Thursday, July 28, 2022

What Does a Mask Communicate?

a medical face mask on the floor

I started writing this post two years ago and left it unfinished. I wasn't sure what point I was trying to make with it, and then I got distracted from blogging by, well, let's blame it on the pandemic and the general craziness of 2020, which for me and my wife included downsizing and moving from our home of 30 years in Boulder, Colorado, to a condo in Center City, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (It was a happy move for us, but the timing during a pandemic was awkward.) Then there was the general craziness of 2021, and now, ta-da!, the general craziness of 2022. Through it all, some of the craziness has involved tensions around masks and mask-wearing, and I've been wanting to get back to reflecting on masks as a communication problem. So, two years later and for what it's worth, here we go. 

One way to state the problem (maybe not the best way, but I'm going with it for purposes of this post) is: "What does a mask communicate?" In communication theory, this question can be approached from the tradition of semiotics, the theory of signs and meaning. From a semiotic point of view, a mask communicates when it it means something to someone—that is, when it functions as a sign. Semiotic theory gives us concepts that are useful for breaking down the complex ways that a sign can have meaning. 

In this post I'm going to explore a little of that complexity of meaning, but first I'd like to open a tiny time capsule from 2020, found in my first draft of this post, a vignette of mask-wearing and meaning in the early months of the pandemic, which I then bring up to date with a brief note on the present:

Boulder, Colorado, May 14, 2020:  As I run to the barbershop, the heavy rain lets up and I pull back my jacket hood, revealing three months growth of shaggy gray hair. Just reopened under new public health rules after weeks of lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19, the shop has announced that customers must wait outside and in order to be admitted must use hand sanitizer and wear a... OH, SHIT! I FORGOT MY MASK! "Sorry," I say to the casual young guy behind a small table that partially blocks the shop entrance, "I left my mask in the car. I guess I was distracted by the thunderstorm. I can run back and get it..." No problem," he says while spraying sanitizer on my outstretched hands, "we'll lend you a mask." 

Half hour later: Looking good on top and grateful for it, I add a big tip to the bill, drop my borrowed cloth mask in the hamper by the door, and step into the bright sunshine and fresh air of a spring afternoon in my Colorado town. As I walk the two blocks to my car I'm self-conscious of not wearing a mask, which we're now officially required to do in public. I pass people on the sidewalk, some with masks and some not, and exchange glances with several. One man (also not wearing a mask, I notice) veers briskly into the street to avoid me. Safely back in my car, I say to myself, "Okay, this is what we are dealing with now. Don't forget that mask again!"

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 28, 2022: On my daily walk through the city and along the Schuylkill River, I see maybe 1 out of 25 people wearing a mask, plus a few carrying one hanging from an arm, at the ready. I still carry a mask in my back pocket, just in case. Masks are no longer required in public, even indoors. However, with Covid-19 recently surging yet again (the sixth wave?) I've been thinking I should wear the mask more often in crowded indoor places. 

Through the last couple of years, wearing a mask has communicated a lot of different things to different people in different contexts, yet with some core of meaning that remains much the same. Ironically, the basic function of wearing a mask these days is mostly about not communicating something, namely the "communicable" disease of Covid-19!  But, while we may avoid communicating a virus by wearing a  mask, we cannot avoid communicating some meaning, however vague or unknowable it may be. It's an axiom of communication theory that "you cannot not communicate." That is, when you are in the presence of others, anything noticeable about you or your actions potentially "says" something to somebody, regardless of your intentions. Efforts to avoid communication, for example by avoiding eye contact, merely communicate that you are trying not to communicate. Wearing a mask is no exception. It's very noticeable, especially so because because it hides the face, which is normally a main focus of attention when we interact. So, wearing a mask in the presence of others (or not wearing one when others do) is definitely communicating, but what exactly it is communicating in a given situation can be hard to know. Yet there is, as I said, a core of meaning that remains much the same.  

A couple of recent academic articles by semiotic theorists are helpful for thinking about this problem. The Italian semiotician Massimo Leone (2021) points out that in any situation the meaning of wearing a mask "is threefold, like the meaning of any communicative device: (1) what I mean by wearing a mask; (2) what is meant to people by wearing a mask; and (3) what is meant by the mask itself."    

Not wearing a mask can communicate just as well as wearing one, and just as unintentionally. On that spring afternoon in Boulder in 2020, I was clearly nervous about not wearing a mask, I think for at least two reasons: (1) I was worried about disease transmission; and (2) I was worried that other people, not knowing I was mask-less by mistake, would assume I was cavalierly putting them in danger by resisting the public health order to wear masks. That was not the person I wanted to be or the message I wanted to be sending in that situation. I may have tried to correct the misimpression by screwing up my face in frustration, to what effect will never be known.  

Leone argues that the core meaning of the mask itself is inseparable from its essential protective function. These are medical masks, quite different from the more decorative or symbolic kinds of masks worn around the world for traditional religious rituals or carnivalesque events like Mardi Gras. Prior to the pandemic, protective masks were mainly associated with doctors and nurses in hospital settings or with workers needing protection from contaminated air in places like mines and construction sites. Such masks can be colorful or otherwise decorative, even fashionable, but the primary reason for wearing them is still for protection. In this they differ, says Leone, from hats and sunglasses, which also have a protective function but often are worn primarily for reasons of self expression and style. In the absence of a pandemic, masks are unlikely to persist as a popular fashion accessory. It's possible, however, that the practice of wearing masks for protection from disease or air pollution, which was already common in some Asian countries before the pandemic, will continue to some extent in Western countries.  

Beyond the core meaning derived from the mask's function, what is communicated by wearing a mask depends a lot on context and has shifted over time. Very early in the pandemic, if you saw someone wearing a mask you might have assumed they were sick and should be avoided. Advice from public health authorities in the winter and spring of 2020 was inconsistent and confusing for a number of reasons, including uncertainty about how the coronavirus was spreading and the effectiveness of masks for preventing it. There was also, initially, a worldwide shortage of masks, and some messaging discouraged us from wearing them unless we were sick, to preserve the existing supply for health care workers who absolutely did need them.  

As the public health case in favor of mask-wearing became clearer in the spring of 2020, efforts to increase the supply of masks multiplied and the meaning of wearing a mask shifted.  Another recent article about the semiotics of mask-wearing by Mickey Vallee (2022), a Canadian media scholar, discusses how a "global mask-making cottage industry," which he associates with the anti-consumerist DIY movement, emerged along with messaging that promoted mask-wearing as "a caring gesture" that we do collectively to protect each other (not just ourselves) and to "flatten the curve" of virus transmission. 

Mask-wearing as a symbol of social solidarity was already common in Asian societies where masking during public health emergencies was an established practice. Interestingly, the now-familiar protective mask was invented in China during an early twentieth century pandemic, and in that cultural context the mask acquired connotations of medical modernity and pride in China as an advanced nation. With the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, masking became a world-wide practice.

Even then, however, public health orders that required masking stirred political controversy in the US, and the meaning of the mask was caught up in some of our cultural contradictions. On the one hand, "we're all in this together" is a slogan that appeals to many Americans. On the other hand, many Americans don't like being told what to do, especially by elite authorities such as public health officers. 
In 1918 and 1919, as bars, saloons, restaurants, theaters and schools were closed, masks became a scapegoat, a symbol of government overreach, inspiring protests, petitions and defiant bare-face gatherings. All the while, thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic. (
Similarities to the US situation in 2020 and 2021 were not unnoticed by observers. As the pandemic wore on, right-wing populists gathered cultural strands of rugged individualism and anti-intellectualism to create a backlash against masks and public health restrictions on freedom in general. Still our malevolently clownish president through 2020, Donald Trump sowed confusion and sparked conflict in his own party by officially endorsing the public health advice to wear masks while also pandering to the right-wing resistance by mocking mask-wearers and declaring that he himself would not wear one. 

In an increasingly polarized environment, not wearing a mask in some American places clearly communicated that one was loyal conservative Republican, while wearing a mask equally clearly communicated that one was not. As an anti-Trump liberal Democrat, I felt that wearing a mask signaled my solidarity with like-minded others. This semiotic logic would obviously pose a problem for right-wingers who wanted to wear masks to protect themselves against Covid-19 yet didn't want to be mistaken for gutless un-American liberals. Masks like the one pictured below offered a solution to this problem. 

Semiotic theory says the mask is polysemic, meaning that it can have a lot of different meanings, some of which are highly contested. As public health orders have receded since 2021, the political heat around masks has gone down, yet differences remain. Searching Twitter a few minutes ago for the phrase "wearing a mask means" turned up numerous comments, including the following;

Kim Burrell should be ashamed of herself for peddling anti-mask and anti-vaxx nonsense when it's Black folks who've been hardest hit by Covid. To imply that getting vaccinated and wearing a mask means you don't "believe enough" is the same backwards mentality that keeps Black folks from seeking therapy. (@FountainPenDiva)

I take a medication that makes me exceptionally scent-sensitive. Wearing a mask means fewer migraines. (@dewsterling)

Wearing a mask means you've died.
Spiritually. (@johnsville14)

In Vietnam, wearing a mask means you love your Country. (@Sinh_MD)

Not wearing a mask means you're a selfish entitled git. (@Margo1hand)

Not wearing a mask means that you choose a stalled, unhealthy, selfish society. (@GalNooks)

At least wearing a mask means that people won't mistake me for a conservative. 🙃 (@salmliam)

We were pummeled with terror for 2 years. For the first year it was QUITE scary for sure! Then we were also told that wearing a mask means you're a good person and showing your face means you're not. The messaging purposefully divided and othered. They don't want to be the other. (@DrJamesOlsson)

Or maybe wearing a mask means he can assess risk? Or maybe he has a health condition? Or maybe a close relative is in a high risk group? I know it's hard for you to believe that someone might wear a mask bc they care about someone other than themself. (@BabblnBostonian)

Lol all that wearing a mask means is that you probably aren’t a little bitch. No need to ascribe grandeur, just means basic courtesy and respect for life. Actual pro-life. (@SullySparks1)

Wearing a mask means you get to inhale your own essence and who doesn’t want that? 🥰 (@_BlurtBobain)

He'll, if I'd have known that wearing a mask means I "don't trust" the Invisible Man in the Sky, I'd be wearing a mask 24/7. (@file_49)

Angry woman asked me why I'm "wearing that piece of garbage on my face" and I said "because I love you and want you to be ok".  It turns out telling angry strangers you love them makes them quiet.  Mental note to self. (@tamalama67)

At what point did people start assuming wearing a mask means you're sick, as opposed to wanting to prevent sickness lol  (@StrewthQueen)

Further Reading

Leone, M. (2021). The semiotics of the anti-COVID-19 mask. Social Semiotics, 1-7. 

Vallee, M. (2022). A mask between you and me. Media, Culture & Society, 44(5), 903-921. 

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