A mask is the new but necessary health accessory! Masks have suddenly transformed to become the hot potatoes of the Covid-19 pandemic, after a long and varied history.
History of Masks
Many cultures across the globe have embraced public use of masks for differing purposes. Women in the Middle East have worn everything from decorative chain-mail to seductive and flimsy veils over their faces for centuries. The Chinese openly adopted masks over a hundred years ago during another huge epidemic, and many people in the Far East continue to use them for health reasons.
In the west, publicly wearing a mask or hoodie has been associated with racial profiling and violence like gun robberies in the West. Open Society Foundations interviewed British women who wore a niqab (Middle Eastern mask) in 2014. They discovered that about 80% of them experienced verbal or physical violence.
Masks during Pandemics
So, how do we suddenly turn on a dime and accept use of a mask by everyone? It seems like a small behavior like wearing a mask can be the precursor for a cultural shift. Masks are mandated by many countries and some states in the US. In Mexico, we cannot get into the supermarket without a mask. I have been chided by attendants for lowering my mask momentarily while shopping. In China, police stopped a friend with his mask down around his neck while crossing the street.
Improve your communication wearing a mask
Regardless of which type of masks we wear, and how we feel about them, how do we communicate well while wearing one? Here are six tips to improve our communication from behind the masks:
Use your eyes as well as your mouth to smile
Move your head more, be more expressive
Pantomime by using your hands
Focus on the other person’s eyes
Engage in eye contact without staring blankly at them
Project warmth, compassion and acceptance
My experience in Saudi Arabia
While living in Saudi Arabia for fifteen years I learned about masks. I learned I never wanted to wear one, unless I had to and now – I have to! I discovered they interfered with heart-felt communications.
When I attended the clinics in Saudi, I mostly talked or looked down at women wearing veils behind a reception desk. I remember the visceral instincts and chemical cocktails that rushed through my body the first few times I had to interact with them.
I remember thinking that the Saudi ladies lined up in the clinic were all dressed in black abayas, with veils and sometimes a mask. To me, they felt like the dementors in Harry Potter. They would stare back with curiosity and guttural comments under their breath that would unnerve me.
Furtive glances by a Saudi woman appearing to be fully occupied with their families often spoke volumes. Curiosity oozed in those glances. I got the sense they were looking for signs or signals from other women. If they were to attach words, they would say things like – “ooooh I love those shoes,” or “nice color of lipstick” or “where did you buy that?”
My initial interactions with these strange creatures was neither graceful nor welcoming. I always felt my conversations were awkward, similar to my current experience from behind a mask. The rules of human engagement had changed, I needed to change with it. It took adaptation and some adjustment – but that was what was required, so I did it.
Although initial interactions were sometimes awkward, the seeds of delightful cross-cultural connections lay therein. When masked women spoke English and projected an air of confidence, it really helped me lean in to understand and build a relationship.
Like learning a new language, I had to watch, learn, and then practice. This was the beginning of changing my communication style: I was the guest, it was my job to adopt and adapt.
I fumbled around, made mistakes but eventually managed this new and mysterious energy behind the face coverings.
By reminding myself that there was a beautiful, lively and unrepeatable human being behind those layers, I learned to relax.
I learned to throw those kinds of glances right back at them. It was like a game. There were different kinds of glances. Sympathy, admiration and even humor at our apparent cultural divides showed up, but so did moments of frustration and displeasure. Intuition and guessing was dialed up to about a level nine.
We maybe headed for a different kind of society, one where we have to learn to practice more grace than we could imagine. Even with masks covering our faces we can still be beacons of positivity.
Human connection is a precious commodity and if this is what it takes to maintain it – it’s worth it.
If you would like to find out more about life in Saudi Arabia, visit Amazon to see my book at Life in the Camel Lane