Unmasking the Mask

We spent a year and a half guessing about the bottom half of other people’s bodies. Now comes time for the face.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

It had never happened during pre-pandemic times because nobody had to wear a mask.

But now, meeting someone without the lower half of his or her face is nothing new. Completing the face of someone based on what you assume they look like is almost instinctive. Recognizing people has now come down to knowing how their eyes or hair look, or their style. These little habits that students have picked up during the pandemic times, whether knowingly or not, have greatly changed the way we interact with and perceive others.

One of the most noticeable changes that comes with wearing a mask is in the guesswork that goes into deciphering the rest of a person’s face. As junior Keara O’Donnell mentioned in an e-mail interview, people often develop preconceived ideas of how others look. As a result, there are many moments of shock and excitement when someone takes off their mask for a sip of water or to take a bite of lunch. “I notice that [when] people put their mask down to eat or drink water, they look completely different from my preconceived idea of their face,” O’Donnell wrote.

Senior Rajhasree Paul had a similar experience with her history teacher Matt Polazzo. “I assumed he was clean shaven. He’s kind of sarcastic. He's kind of witty. [...] But then, one day, he has his mask dangling off one of his ears […] the man has a beard of all things,” she said. After seeing Polazzo unmasked, Paul explained how hard it was to reconcile his actual face with the previous image she had of him. “The vibe of clean shaven Mr. Polazzo that I had in my head versus the actual bearded Mr. Polazzo—completely changed.”

Freshman Qiuhan Lin finds that wearing a mask can make approaching others difficult. “You kind of assume what people look like under that, and sometimes when you only see their eyes, you think they are cold or mean, when they’re not really like that,” Lin explained. Without that slight lift of the lips or the stretch of the cheeks, it can be hard to decipher if that person is willing to talk, making Lin less willing to talk to someone she’s not familiar with.

Masks can also make it harder to really know someone. “When people wear masks, they can hide their insecurities about the lower half of their face, and sometimes, you don’t really get to know them completely because they’re hiding a part of themselves away,” junior Shanel Zhang noted. Subsequently, identifying a person’s emotions and personality can be confusing. “I also can't tell what emotions they may be showing, especially if they're being sarcastic or not, so it's harder to pick up on those social cues,” O’Donnell said.

On the other hand, Paul noticed that she is more willing to come closer to people when donning a mask. “One of my biggest insecurities is my T zone [...] Masks cover all of that, so there are no worries about getting close in someone's face,” she said. However, she does understand Lin’s point that masks can make communication difficult. “There is still a lot of [body] language appearing in these parts—that lower half of our face.” She explained how even seeing an angular face versus a rounded face can make someone seem intimidating.

Further, masks make it hard to recognize each other. Plenty of teachers have been using name signs far past the usual first month because distinguishing between students is a struggle. It’s no different between past or new friends. “Without the bottom half of their face, everyone looks similar. [...] So, sometimes when you see friends, you kind of have a hard time recognizing whether it’s them or not and that makes you scared to say hello,” Zhang said. It’s also harder to hear people because the mask muffles their voice. “I often have to ask people to repeat their words or completely mishear them,” O’Donnell said.

While masks can be a hindrance when interacting with others, it can also provide a sense of comfort and confidence. In eighth grade, Paul lost a tooth; she finds that wearing a mask is a convenient way to hide similar afflictions: “If I didn't have it [the mask], then everyone would see me toothless. And well, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but I would prefer not to be seen as toothless because if you saw one of your friends that didn't have a tooth, you'd be like, ‘you okay, dude?’” Zhang has another take on wearing masks. “I kind of like hiding this part of myself. It’s fun because when I take off my mask, other people have weird reactions, and that’s really funny,” she said.

O’Donnell emphasized that masks haven’t stopped the feeling of return—to school, friends, and the real world: “That [wearing a mask] still hasn't completely prevented me from having great conversations with people or forming new friendships.” Paul is hopeful for the day when everyone can be maskless again. “I'm just waiting for the day when we're all told that we can actually take your masks off and just the shock of [...] seeing everyone’s faces,” she said.

With the pandemic still ongoing, it looks like masks will be sticking around for a while, continually defining the way we interact and perceive others. While they can offer the occasional side of amusement and intrigue, it seems as though it just doesn’t measure up to being able to see the entire face. As Paul put it, “Eyes are the window to the soul, but a smile goes a long way.”