Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Message Is in the Mask

What is she hiding, a smile or a frown? The black mask covers the lower half of her face, leaving me in doubt, even a little apprehensive. My imagination leaves me with numerous possibilities.

Is this a veil to maintain some mystery, keeping it secret until the moment of dramatic disclosure? On the other hand, is it a disguise, hiding the truth, prohibiting transparency? The words she uses are friendly enough as we enter the restaurant. She shows us to our designated table and asks us what we would like to drink. I wanted to know more about the young woman behind the mask. Yet, I dare not ask too many questions.

As our enjoyment of the first “dine in” meal we have shared for several months moves along, I have the increasing sense that our server is enjoying being able to hide behind the mandatory mask. It is as if she is observing us from a distance, silently questioning why we are attending this masquerade without wearing the obligatory masks.

Such a simple thing; a small swatch of cloth covering the chin, mouth and nose. And yet it leaves me feeling wary and uncertain. Of course, knowing from endless media and medical authorities that these masks are for our protection, and the protection of others to whom we might spread the villain virus. But, is there more?

Masks.  They complicate communication by removing some of the most important nonverbal cues we rely on every day. We are prone to step back from full engagement with those who cover their faces, fearful of potential misunderstanding. For me, wearing hearing aids already presents a challenge. Picking up exact words spoken is almost impossible, especially in noisy environments. Normally, even listening face-to-face, I rely upon lip-reading. Now, add to this the muffling effect of the mask and I am left feeling anxious, exposed and vulnerable.

Of course, masks have played a variety of roles throughout human history. They have been used to induce fear, provide protection in battle (or in sports), enable anonymity, extend regal prominence, entertain, disguise, and cover-up embarrassment. And now they express confidence in our current obsession to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. But masks are not neutral.

A study by researchers at Bielefeld University, Germany, considered the covering up of different parts of the face and found that observers predominantly relied on the eye and mouth regions when successfully recognizing an emotion. Different moods were detected from contrasting parts of the face. For instance, sadness and fear relies on focusing on the eyes, whereas disgust and happiness are typically detected by concentrating on the mouth area.

And lately, when I see a mask, whether for its color, design, fit, or incongruity, I think about those in our Parkinson’s disease community who struggle with what is called the “Parkinson’s mask”. In such cases, the facial muscles appear frozen and the eyes maintain an expressionless stare. Facial features refuse the brain’s messaging to smile or express emotion. The Parkinson's mask discourages communication, which can encourage self-isolation.

Perhaps these days we all wear masks.  And it is increasingly our challenge to discover and engage the person who is behind the mask.

The human face is, after all, nothing more nor less than a mask. – Agatha Christie

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