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How to improve masking behavior

how to improve masking behavior

by Noelle Tankard
MPhil Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge.
BA Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Bristol.

Tips for improving masking behavior, and understanding some potential barriers and solutions.

Mask Training

If you’re new to mask wearing, especially long-time duration mask wearing during strenuous physical activity, or getting used to a new mask:

  • Be patient with yourself, take time to get used to your new mask
    • Wearing a mask isn’t as simple as throwing it on. 
    • You need to get used to the sensation on your face of each new style, trust that while it may be uncomfortable at first you will acclimate. Over time the sensory issues will diminish as your brain turns off the sensory input, just like you get used to wearing a watch or a tight collar.
  • Practice wearing your mask in low-risk settings before work
    • Cook dinner/take out the trash/go for a hike in your mask to get used to how the new mask feels and ensure you can achieve your full range of motion and go about activities while wearing it
    • Sing along to the radio in your car in your mask to ensure the fit is comfortable for speaking and adjust as necessary while still alone and safe
  • Build a positive relationship with your mask
    • We’re wearing masks because we have to protect ourselves and others when entering high-risk locations. This is even more important for essential workers who are in high-stress situations during the course of their work day and are likely experiencing harassment. The mask and the stress are paired together. We need to break that association.
    • Engage in pleasurable activities in the mask: play a board game with friends, do an art project in your room, spend time with your family.
    • Put it on before you arrive: when the mask and entering the high-risk high-stress location are paired, you’re more likely to have a panic attack or anxiety related breathing issues as the sensation of the mask and the frightening situation hit you at the same time. Break this pairing.. 
  • Put your mask on with intention & care
    • You need to take the time necessary to get the mask on properly before entering any shared common spaces. Do not wait until you are just outside the door of a business. 
    • Recognize how to ensure your mask is properly fitted.
  • Commit to one style of mask
    • Find a model, cut, and size of mask that fits you well. Get multiple identical masks.
    • Switching back and forth between different styles of masks every day makes it harder for your brain to turn off the sensory input, and therefore, harder for you to adjust to wearing it. It’s the equivalent of wearing sandals one day and high heels the next while learning to walk.

Communicating through a mask

People often take off their masks to talk. Many are simply not aware of their actions or are under the mistaken impression that they cannot be understood through a mask. Those with histories of being dismissed or misunderstood may feel that being asked to “keep their mask on” is silencing them. We often underestimate the significance of facial expressions in communication and the impact of not being able to see two-thirds of someone’s face while speaking with them. This issue is exacerbated in loud places where sound pollution makes hearing difficult, such as in many workplaces including restaurant kitchens and construction sites.

Effectively communicating through a mask is like communicating across a language barrier.

  • Make eye contact
    • You will understand the person who is speaking to you better with eye contact. And they will also understand you better when you speak.
  • Use your hands, purposefully incorporate body language
    • Giving a thumbs-up helps show when you’re listening to someone, when you’re in agreement with them, and when you’re saying yes.
    • Cup your hand near your ear to show that you haven’t heard someone and need them to speak up.
    • Nod your head in exaggerated motions for yes and no.
    • Tilt your head to the side when you’re listening intently to show your focus on the speaker.
    • All the instinctive hand-waving we do serves a purpose, even if it isn’t a formalized sign language. Lean into the gestures that were already a part of your vocabulary. Add a few new ones.
  • Speak clearly and slowly 
    • Enunciate. 
    • Pause between words. 
    • If you aren’t understood, rephrase your statement rather than repeating the same words.
  • Reduce sound pollution
    • As much as possible, reduce the sound level of your workplace or home. 
      (Do not turn off ventilation / filtration devices as these are essential for COVID safety)
    • If this cannot be done all the time (essential machinery, etc.), make an effort to turn off machines or pause them at critical times when communication is essential. 
    • Step outdoors, into another room, or further away from the source of the noise to have your conversation.

Encouragement & positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is crucial to building and reinforcing new behaviors. We are trying to change social norms while also forcing people to confront their subconscious behaviors. Having to remind someone to pull their mask up is a sensitive and often risky behavior to engage in, especially with strangers.

  • Compliment others for wearing interesting/well-fitted/high-quality masks
    • Engaging in positive conversations in public places about masks helps to normalize them and support the increasingly important role they are playing in society.
    • People love to share where they got their mask, what they like about it, etc. This can be a great opportunity to learn something or be able to share a tip or hack, and others who overhear can also benefit or realize that their mask needs adjusting.
  • Encourage others when they are struggling
    • If you see someone fiddling with their mask, pulling it up as it’s slipping – thank them for their effort immediately!
    • They are more likely to give up trying and simply let the mask stay down unless they know that it is important to you!
      • It’s better to offer them encouragement to keep trying than to reprimand or chastise after it’s a problem.
    • Offer sympathy as it is tough to deal with a mask, thank them for taking the effort.

Mask reminders: Gentle-but-Firm 

  • We need to make this as simple and non-judgement laden as telling someone that their fly is down or they have something in their teeth. Treat it as a conspiratorial favor you are doing them: you are helping them out before someone else notices.
    • “By the way, your mask has slipped.” 
    • “Hey, did you know your mask is slipping?”
  • If a customer or coworker has their mask down or entirely off while speaking to you, remind them that you are not comfortable with the situation 
    • Step away from them until they have properly masked up. If you cannot step away, simply leaning away and using your body language to demonstrate the effort you are making to increase the distance between you can be equally effective to communicate.
  • Establish your boundaries
    • “I would be more comfortable if you could pull your mask up, please.”
    • “I am not comfortable having this conversation here, since you’re unmasked. Could we take this outside or would you be able to put your mask on?”
  • A more direct approach can be necessary and appropriate. You may have someone refuse to mask up after asking them to do it for your sake, you may find that there is not time to be delicate, or you have been placed with the legal responsibility of ensuring others are masked in a busy situation.
    • Do not startle anyone, do not cause their adrenalin levels to spike.
      • Make sure you have their attention (preferably after having established eye contact and/or offered them a greeting) before you mention the masking issue.
    • Best practice is to offer the other person a mask rather than demand that they mask up or ask where their mask is. 
      • Your place of business should be keeping masks on hand to offer customers. If not, speak to your manager or union rep.
    • Remember that they may have trouble understanding you if you yourself are muffled or they have difficulty hearing.
      • If you don’t have a mask in your hand as a visual aid, gesture to your own mask, or make the motion of pulling a mask over your face to help them  understand what you’re trying to say.