How To Navigate Shifting Social Norms Around Wearing Masks

Six months into the pandemic, social norms around wearing masks continue to shift and take shape. 

"Clearly you need to wear a mask...we know that masks are incredibly important in stopping the spread of the disease, both to protect yourself and also to protect others," said Dr. Robert Klitzman, professor of psychiatry and director of the bioethics master’s program at Columbia University. "But you know, they’re uncomfortable, you have to remember to wear them, they make it hard to communicate with other people, they make you hot, they steam up your glasses. So people don’t like them. And of course they’ve become politicized now."

Each new social situation can present a dilemma. If you attend a wedding with dozens of other people, public health guidance says you should wear a mask as much as possible. But when you are eating dinner, having drinks, taking photos and dancing all night, it can be easy to let your guard down and remove it.

Dr. Klitzman told KCBS Radio's "Ask An Expert" he faced the same problem when he attended an outdoor birthday party and was the only person wearing a mask.

"People then came over and felt guilty or looked at me kinda hesitantly or looked at me like, was I judging them? It raised a whole set of issues, showing me how socially awkward it can be in different groups when the norm is to wear or not wear a mask," he explained.

While most public health guidance says people should wear a mask whenever they are in contact with someone who they do not live with, following through with that is more complicated.

"We’re having to make these very small decisions about who’s safe," he said. For example, if you live with your children who are attending school, should you wear a mask in the home anytime you are around them? "There’s a lot of small micro decisions that we each are having to make every day, and these are hard and mistakes will be made."

While some people in your social circle will view your mask as a courtesy to them, others might take it as a sign that they are not a part of your trusted "social bubble," or that you are worried about their behavior. 

Dr. Klitzman said that these awkward encounters are to be expected at a time of uncertainty where there are no established norms and compared it to smoking. Decades ago, smoking in public and in close contact with others was commonplace. Now, it is the opposite. But in between, before it was publicly accepted that secondhand smoke is hazardous, people had to create and enforce their own personal boundaries around smoke.

The best strategy is to gently push back if someone questions your decision or refuses to wear a mask.

"I think explaining the reasons carefully is helpful," he said, adding that education and empathy are always more effective than shame when it comes to changing behaviors.