Wearing a mask in public continues to create a variety of awkward moments, such as how to politely suggest to your grocery cashier that the mask needs to go over their nose, too.
When the president mocks mask wearers for appearing weak and sees face coverings as a political statement against him, it’s no surprise that some Americans are loudly declining to wear them. In Pinellas County, a screaming woman refused to leave Carmelitas Mexican Restaurant in July after being told she had to wear a mask and view the menu online. The police were called.
Shaming someone, whether it’s online or in the checkout line, will probably be counterproductive, psychologists say.
Make it all about care and concern, advises Tampa Bay etiquette coach Patricia Rossi. She is the author of Everyday Etiquette: How to Navigate 101 Common and Uncommon Social Situations. She has delivered seminars on etiquette for a wide range of groups, from Raymond James bankers to ballplayers, neurosurgeons and NASA.
The key to navigating everything from the boardroom to the backyard barbecue is to focus on relationships, not rules, Rossi advises.
“Ohhhhh! Be careful, your mask is slipping, I don’t want you to get sick,” Rossi would say with a smile. “Make it about concern for them.”
Living in a pandemic means we’re all stressed, which affects how we communicate, Rossi said. So it feels even more imperative to try and navigate these thorny issues with empathy.
When it comes to mask etiquette, it’s all in the tone.
“I’m so glad you were able to come. I’m making sure everyone wears a mask to keep us safe and comfortable,” the AARP suggested to its members as a tip for what to say when hosting a gathering. It also suggested having a ready supply of disposable masks on hand to offer the guest.
For those alarmed by the lack of a mask, the AARP suggests saying: “I’d really feel more comfortable if you would wear a mask. I’m at a higher risk of having complications should I get this virus and need to be extra careful.”
Rossi also suggests making the request more about yourself than shaming the person without a mask. But she prefers to seek out a manager and explain your dilemma and suggest a friendly announcement rather than confronting a worker or fellow customer.
Rossi recalled a recent week when she had both a death in the family and a dear friend who was diagnosed with cancer and she stopped at the store to pick up flowers and food. She noticed she was getting some odd looks from the other customers and was puzzled. She then scratched her nose and realized she had forgotten to put a mask on. Luckily, she knew one of the cashiers, who quickly gave her a disposable mask.
“You don’t know what people are going through," Rossi said. "So I’m trying to nurture somebody, to get food and flowers and not put anybody at risk healthwise. I don’t know what I would have done if someone had screamed at me that day. I might have burst into tears.”
It is more productive, Rossi said, to lead with a concerned tone. “If we can just manage ourselves first, before we try to manage anyone else, that really is a shortcut.”
For months, the CDC did not recommend for the public to wear face masks in an effort to reserve them for healthcare workers. The CDC reversed its recommendation on April 3 as research suggested face coverings could reduce the spread of droplets and the possibility of pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission.
Soon after, social media outlets were full of videos of confrontations over mask wearing. But shame and confrontation are not going to work, a Harvard epidemiologist suggested, comparing the current social complexity to the early failed efforts at changing behavior during the AIDS crisis.
“Americans are figuring out how to live with a deadly new virus now, just as gay men did in the early years of AIDS,” Julia Marcus, epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School wrote in the Atlantic. “Abstinence from sex wasn’t sustainable, and condoms became a ticket to greater sexual freedom. Likewise, Americans can’t abstain from human interaction forever, and widespread masking may be a ticket to more social and economic freedom. But trying to shame people into wearing condoms didn’t work — and it won’t work for masks either.”
Empathy has its own kind of power, Marcus suggests. Acknowledging what people dislike about wearing a mask enables a connection with a person rather than alienating them further.
“Trying to shame people into wearing masks will only cement their resistance — and perhaps even drive them to socialize behind closed doors, where being unmasked is higher risk,” Marcus wrote. “Public health works best when it recognizes and supports people’s needs and desires without judgment.”
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