The semiotics of face masks

It’s difficult to get adults to wear bicycle helmets. (I wrote about this on the blog 16 years ago).

The reason has nothing to do with comfort or safety. It has to do with signals.

Semiotics is the science of flags, signals and other communications. It studies the very human act of judging something (or someone) based on limited information as we seek the message behind the signal, all in a quest for belonging and social standing.

Even more than helmets, face masks make a statement.

Ten years ago, if you wore a face mask at work, you were either a surgeon, a carpenter or a bank robber.

As they began to spread, mainly in parts of Asia, the mask was interpreted by some non-mask wearers as either a generous act (the wearer doesn’t want to infect others) or something slightly paranoid.

Then, when the pandemic first arrived in the US, masks became the focus of hoarding. Like toilet paper, it was a way to sacrifice time and money to get something scarce and reassuring. People weren’t reading scientific journals, they were grasping. The hoarding had the unfortunate side effect of keeping masks from front-line medical workers who needed them. It also created a sense of false security because many of the people who were using them had no clue how to use them properly, causing them to be worse off than if they hadn’t had them at all.

If you wore a mask on Main Street as you shopped in early March 2020, it was probably not increasing your social standing.

And then, as some newspapers shifted their stance and homemade masks began to appear, the story changes again–worth noting that even fast fashion has never changed this fast.

And so the storytelling continues. “Why is that person wearing a mask,” the non-mask wearer asks themselves. Is it to shame me? To let me know that they’re ill and I should steer far away? Perhaps it’s a way of identifying them as anti-social, because, after all, I’m not wearing one… Or maybe they’re smarter than me and I’m behind?

The narratives may also be shifting from, “how do I protect myself?” which is a self-directed desire, to, “how do I keep others protected?” This is generally a hard sell in the world of the Marlboro Man, bespoke disposable water bottles and the Hummer.

Notice that none of these internal monologues have much to do with epidemiology or public health. Face masks might help, it’s not certain, but the semiotics of social standing and cultural posture happen long before we actively consider the science.

Whether or not you choose to wear a mask, drive a Prius or even a pickup truck, it’s worth remembering that because we’re human, we start with two things: What’s the story I’m telling myself, and what’s the story I’m telling everyone else.


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