COVID-19 Masks: The Emotional and Cultural Questions

The COVID-19 pandemic is infecting millions at an alarming rate and has brought our existence to near-standstill as the government imposed strict restrictions on social interactions and movements to contain the virus spread. It’s been months since we’re into the massive timeout forced on us. Hardly can anyone convincingly refute the fact that the pandemic has enlisted some radical changes to our idea of ‘the normal’ before the pandemic, particularly by introducing freakish interruption to our physical and social interaction. This article attempts to offer a symbolic analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic that has impacted our day-to-day interactions and successfully instilled in new meanings to the popular pandemic symbol- ‘The mask’.

COVID-19 Masks: The Emotional and Cultural Questions

Sharing Smiles and Human Connections

What do people count on the most when attempting to interpret and understand each other? Non-Verbal Cues. If you are aware of the 7-38-55 rule, you would certainly agree on this. Alexander Todorov, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Princeton University says, humans are, “absolute experts at interpreting faces.” Imagine, you throw a pleasant smile at someone while walking past and that interaction is obstructed by a mask. Aren’t you actually missing something that informs others about your polite and approachable attitude? In a time when almost everybody is using a mask to cover the lower face, there is a constraint to infer the emotions of people around you with a few or no evidence. So, it is okay to flub an encounter. Realizing that everyone is seeking to revise their interactions with the external worlds and it will take us some time to make peace with it, would make it easier for all of us to get accustomed not just to the present times, but also the post-pandemic conditions.

Viewing the Popular Pandemic Symbol through Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic Interactionism examines society through subjective connotations assigned to objects, events, and behaviours by the people of a particular community. The father of the symbolic school is George Herbert Mead who believed that the advancement of the people was a social process, and so were the meanings people assigned to things.  Herbert Bloomer coined the term ‘Symbolic Interactionism’. His three principles of symbolic interactionism are (1) action is based on the meanings ascribed (2) people assign different meanings of things based on interactions and (3) the meanings are subject to change.

Masks indisputably have changed our interactions. But, is there something more to this new reality- the mask culture? 

The Asian “Face Mask Culture”

The outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918 marks the beginning of the “Face Mask Culture” in Japan, which is still alive in this country and many other Asian countries, even after more than a century. In the present day, try stepping outside your home in Tokyo, Hong Kong, or Seoul without a lower face covering to get a disapproving look. Face masks have always owned an underlying cultural narrative in Asia, unlike the West. They symbolize safety and considerateness. The prevalence of ‘Lookism Culture’ in South Korea primarily motivates particularly females to cover their bare-without-makeup-faces up. Masks have also taken up the role of colourful and fashionable accessories. In China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Taiwan, the central belief is that everybody acts as hosts of viruses, including healthy ones. So, there’s an obligation to protect others from yourselves for the greater good.

The SARS Virus outbreak in 2003 also brought home the significance of wearing masks where the death rates were at a peak. The dissimilarity between the West and the East is that the latter has experienced contagion before and the memories are still painfully fresh.

The US – ‘Masks’, Personal or Political Statement?

In the US, wearing masks has become a question of personal freedoms. Some citizens believe that forcing everyone to wear masks violates civil rights. The strong sense of individualism prevents people from paying heed to the guidelines of the government even for their own good. The choice of wearing face masks in public has become a political statement and stirred up controversies as the Democrats patronize face masks while the Republicans stand against it. Similarly, a sharp rise in racism against Asians is one of the many reasons why most people prefer not wearing masks.

But, here is a demerit. People who do not wear masks in these places have been stigmatized to an inconceivable extent.

Germany’s Religious Narrative

Unlike Asia, Germany is a new addition to the masking culture. Here, masks in public spheres are magnets attracting stares. People’s skepticism about wearing masks traces its roots to religious reasons that demonize diseases, particularly face masks as a metaphor for lost innocence. Weeks into the pandemic, Germans are successfully learning to accommodate masks to their daily lives.

India’s Luxury Face Masks

In India, seasonal air pollution or heavy traffic has made wearing face masks quite normal and there is no drastic shift that is apparent in the meanings associated with masks in general. Interestingly enough, luxury gold and diamond-studded face masks have hit the Indian markets recently, almost altering the fundamental purpose of wearing masks in a pandemic to secondary importance. This can also be perceived as a way of adopting face masks into culturally recognized practices like marriages.

The New Meaning

Masks indeed have taken up new meanings associated with more concerning issues such as stereotyping, racial discrimination, and xenophobia. At the same time, masks are evolving more and more in the vicinity of communities across the world. The understanding that COVID-19 is a collective problem that must be battled with oneness and mask-wearing can certainly help. This has gradually taken a base in Western countries, during the past few months.

By spreading the practice of mask-wearing culture, people are showing solidarity with each other, cooperating to reduce the strain on fellow humans. The idea that every little speck counts in the war the world is waging against the virus.

Also Read: Conceptualising New Sociology of Pandemic


Masks are no more just a  piece of cloth or other material that you wear over all or part of your face to protect us from the virus. The pandemic has made people across the world assign different meanings to it. Symbolic Interactionism looks into these changes in meanings assigned to an object and this face mask trend could be a major culture shift for the West. But, the symbolic school also states that the meanings are subject to change. And, masks are just elements of current history and perhaps viewed as an emerging cultural norm.  But as this pandemic evolves, along with information, research, and proof, our attitude towards face masks may change again.


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Sangamithra S is a soc major, pursuing her bachelor's degree at Miranda House. She is fascinated by the intricacies of society with an unquenchable zest to document the unnoticed deserving attention. Connect with her on LinkedIn.