So I went outside and we’re all wearing masks now

17.07, Saturday 2 May 2020

I went out in public this morning for the first time in about four weeks, and tons of people are wearing masks. (We’re fine but our household has been isolating all that time: first after an encounter and, just as that stint ended, the toddler had an unexplained fever.)

  • We don’t have any masks (yet) so I ad-hocked a winter buff. Not ideal, it made my glasses steam up. Breath is hot!
  • It was immediately shocking to see people who were not wearing masks (a minority only). Specifically I noticed in myself a feeling of anger at their selfishness, or anger as if they were deliberately attacking me, or perhaps I felt that they were freeloading on the carefulness of others – and whether valid or not, that anger is a feeling to keep an eye on, because I imagine a lot of people are feeling the same, and society-wide feelings of anger can quickly become invisible, unquestionable, and manipulated by those in power.
  • I can’t see us going back to not wearing masks.
  • Young people in particular seemed less likely to be wearing masks (by “young” I mean the under 30s, OK boomer…) and those same people were also more likely to be casual with their social distancing. The generational discrimination of this disease is so stark: if you’re young, you’re much less likely to get seriously ill, you’re less likely to know someone who has gotten seriously ill, and your parents are probably younger than the 70+ danger zone. Covid must be so abstract for them, primarily an economic problem, but day to day they feel immune and immortal.
  • Another group less likely to wear masks: street cleaners and delivery drivers. Lack of masks supplied by work? Or is it choice… does continuous exposure to the risk just produce a sense of resignation? Or do they feel (fairly) that, as essential workers, their permission to remain unmasked is what society is “buying” with social distancing?
  • Another group less likely to wear masks: runners and cyclists. Come on guys (it was all guys), it’s mid morning, it’s busy out.

Two other things:

It’s hard to see and show emotions in a mask. A thumbs up or a yell of thanks is easy enough, but how do you walk down the street and look friendly and approachable? Or at least, 1.8m approachable.

Avoiding people is weird. You step out into the street, or wait for them to move along, but in terms of proxemics it’s very unusual to take such care to keep another person at a far-social-almost-public distance. 6ft/1.8m is outside the comfortable conversation distance of 1.6m. So I’ve a hunch that what happens is that you take the evasive action, and then afterwards you feel a flush of the emotion that would usually precede it – a vague sense that the person needs to be avoided, classic post-rationalising confabulation. Then I catch myself treating the other person in a way that is consistent with that emotion, like it would be somehow hypocritical to first steer clear of them but then give a friendly hello.

But maybe these two points are connected? A mask means the smile isn’t seen and actually it’s harder to make too: the mask holds my face in place, just a touch. And maybe a smile not made is also a smile not felt?


Keith Johnstone‘s Impro is a book of theatre techniques based around improvisation and when I read it in 2008 I found it life changing. This summary on Ribbonfarm is a decent taster.

The first three chapters are called Status, Spontaneity, and Narrative Skills and they’re great but also they make sense.

The third chapter is called Masks and Trance and reading it is an unsettling experience, in the Lovecraftian sense of there being infinitely more to the world that we know or, for that matter, could handle.

The reason why one automatically talks and writes of Masks with a capital ‘M’ is that one really feels that the genuine Mask actor is inhabited by a spirit. Nonsense perhaps, but that’s what the experience is like, and has always been like.


A Mask is a device for driving the personality out of the body and allowing the spirit to take possession of it.

It all sounds unbelievable until you try a Mask, and allow yourself to let go just a little.

How to do it:

… make your mouth fit the Mask and hold it so that the mouth and the Mask make one face.

Here are some of my favourite quotes.

I have a vague and hand-wavey rationalisation of the Mask… we’re social animals, and when we change the way we’re seen and interacted with, that reflects back into the psyche, blah blah blah.

But the fact remains that wearing a Mask is a terrifyingly powerful experience - seriously TRY IT - and actually a pretty good shorthand to talking about what’s going on is to simply say that, yes, these inanimate objects carry their own personalities, and, yes, when you wear one, that personality possesses and changes you.

So like I said, I went outside today, and it turns out a ton of us are wearing masks now.

And I wonder, what personality does a mask/Mask have when it’s

  • a tight, shaped mask and it fits round your cheeks, hardening the face,
  • or a homemade-from-a-t-shirt mask that makes your breath short and hot, and smiles are there but hidden,
  • or a medical mask that advertises status and authority to all around, unearned,

and how do those spirits possess the wearer? And what happens to a community when, almost overnight, these personalities come into the mix?

And what about the Twitter mask, and the Facebook mask, and the email mask, these other masks we wear online which hide our faces and possess us with their spirits? How might we notice them, and how might we describe them, and what do they do, and who do we become?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.