Facemasks are becoming ubiquitous as people try to avoid catching Covid-19. As anyone who has worn a facemask quickly discovers, the mask traps many of the moist aerosol particles exhaled with every breath. Wearing a non-medical mask may do little to protect the wearer, but offers some measure of protection to persons around the wearer. The more people who wear masks, the more mask wearing is an example of reciprocal altruism in action: I act, not knowing who I may help, trusting others, usually persons unknown to me, to protect me by wearing a mask.
Facemasks do hide much of a person’s face, unavoidably diminishing non-verbal communication.
Facemasks also seem to diminish whatever propensity people may have to greet verbally persons they pass or see. It is as if wearing a mask creates not only a degree of anonymity but also a barrier that discourages saying hello and other incidental, verbal communication with strangers. This barrier probably represents a lack of trust, a wariness, toward people whose face is largely hidden as well as pandemic induced trepidation about potential contagion.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, and wearing masks a valuable effort of reciprocal altruism, the challenge will be to discern new ways to develop trust in strangers wearing masks. Each such stranger is my neighbor; each such stranger wears a mask, at least in part, to protect me. I must learn anew how and when to risk speaking and interacting.