There is a certain irony in wearing a mask when entering a bank and assuming that we would be turned away if we refused to wear one. I am pushing the effacement even further: having enjoyed Korean shows on Netflix since 2019, I wear their young men’s bangs low on my forehead. Korean hair is very black, very thick, very shiny and I only have old-lady grey hair getting a little thinner every year but so far, so good: I am brow-less. I also wear prescription glasses that turn dark in the sun. Below it all, the mask.
As I enter the bank, there is no visible skin on my face. I have been an infrequent visitor over the years and they do not know me. How can they assess the threat I might present? Would they look harder if I were six foot five inches tall and weigh three hundred pounds? This is the same bank, after all, that called the police one year ago to arrest an ordinary-looking man trying to open an account for his twelve-year-old granddaughter. Not the same branch –and they did apologize, and the overzealous teller was apparently duly chastised. So all is well and forgotten one might assume, except by the ordinary-looking man from Bella Bella and his granddaughter. But, let’s be fair: he had a lot to answer for, having acted “suspiciously” and only offering as I.D. (1) his government-issued Indian Status card, (2-3) his and the young girl’s birth certificates, and (4) her medical card. Imagine if they had been masked as well…
For me, perhaps the most startling aspect of President Biden’s inauguration last month was the small military parade that filed by. The flow of identical uniforms was accompanied this year by a similarly identical lack of faces. They passed by mechanically, their different semblances hidden by the same black masks, like an army of robots. Only their eyes showed, expressionless and fixed straight ahead except when passing the man they were meant to honour. The choice of black is no accident. Soldiers could have worn khaki, or red if on parade (red being traditionally the colour of warning, danger, and blood––with a hint of taboo) but they wore black. Women might choose it because it is elegant and it would look different on them, but elegance is not what military men seek: they want to instill a sense of danger compounded by anonymity. They want to look like dark faceless automata, safe from identification, powerful in their sameness. Simply put, black masks – en masse – are scary.
The face having disappeared, must we from now on rely exclusively on the eyes to carry our non-verbal messages? Eyes on their own do not communicate well. They need some muscular activity close by to denote moods and intentions. Even with masks, we can still crinkle a few wrinkles around the eyes to indicate amusement and the implication of a smile or summon a furrow between them to show displeasure—in other words the basic caveman communication. But how much further can we go without using our voice?
A French child, I grew up in Morocco until the age of sixteen, with veiled Moslem women everywhere around me. In northern cities, both eyes were revealed, heavily kohled, and the women were more genteel. In the south, where I lived, the more rustic Berber women used their head cover held with a hennaed hand to hide most of their faces, often showing only one eye. They were on the whole quite vocal in the marketplace where I would see them haggling, and perhaps these childhood memories where communication never seemed a problem makes me think that hidden faces do not hinder it. But, in truth, I do not remember, as these hidden faces were the norm rather than a novelty, which is still the case for us.
I was thinking about this a few days ago, while waiting in line, six feet apart, outside a Vancouver shop that only admits two customers at the time. Further along, a man was also waiting (presumably for his wife inside the shop), a small dog on a leash sitting beside him. I wondered how I could engage with the dog without using facial expressions, since we believe dogs are masters at interpreting them. My stare soon drew her attention but seemed to unnerve her a little–perhaps because it did not seem to carry any intention on my part (friend or foe? I would assume that, in nature, until one knows the answer, it’s safer not to draw attention to oneself). So, still looking at her, I simply inclined my head a little to the side, the way dogs do to express curiosity and interest. It is quite possible that they also do this to mimic us, but that is what basic seduction is made of after all: drawing the others in by acting like them. Within seconds, the little dog was pulling on her leash to get closer to me. The man released the leash but it was still too short and she could not reach me. I turned my head away to break the visual connection and the little dog sat back, presumably disappointed in her efforts to meet a compatible stranger.
Imitating the other’s motion is a well-known technique of seduction. Could this become a new ritual, a conventional short cut to show good intentions when we first meet strangers? A small dance of replicated motions to show that we wish to be attuned, used as a transcendental message to prepare the ground before we can even speak? No doubt we will develop this approach into a sophisticated code but I wish I had better observed the veiled women of my childhood.
This concern is not anodyne. There is an affliction called prosopagnosia––the inability to recognize faces. I suffer from a very mild version of it and score poorly on face recognition tests. The way it manifests itself is that I do not hold the total image but focus instead on special components. For instance, I usually recognize actors in different roles through their voices or some favourite facial expressions (I am an expert on Meryl Streep’s smiles). I also prefer shows where the characters are quite distinct and clearly defined: blond hero, dark villain. Mustaches, beards, baldness, limps, missing limbs, corpulence, size, distinctive pieces of jewelry, the arch of an eyebrow, the fold of an ear, are essential in building up recognizable personalities. However, in the real world, the distinctions are sometimes less evident, and I have only mentioned here those not hidden by a mask. The face is still the port of entry into the other’s identity.
When many features are now hidden, how am I going to maintain an acceptable level of recognition? So far, the pandemic social isolation has meant that my circle is made up of very few and very familiar faces, but were I to meet new people, all masked, how am I going to recognize them from one encounter to another? The problem is that we all think ourselves quite memorable, but without clues how can people like me manage in a world where women change hairstyles and men grow beards? With age, my vagueness will no doubt be interpreted as a sign to watch for.
More seriously, I also wonder about babies and toddlers, whose immediate world of close carers are the only unmasked faces from which to learn non-vocal communication. How extensive will their panoply of facial expressions be when reduced to the familiar/familial ones? Does the masked world––the non-close family world, the “non-us” world–– imply notions of threat as well as alien-ness? All faces are no longer equal and the majority are clearly marked as not belonging within the safety net. One wonders how they will handle the multiple levels of relationship and family configuration now partly defined by how one nana wears a mask when visiting and the other one does not.
To compound the mystery, how do the deaf manage? Gone are lip-reading and expressive features. One little detail, often ignored, is how the wearing of masks also interferes with the aging process and its accompaniments of instrumental aids. With the virus variants becoming more actively transmissible, it is recommended that we wear double masks in close quarters. So, double masks loops, glasses, and hearing aids? All three feel essential to many old people’s sense of safety but most human ears are not designed for such paraphernalia.
In such a complicated context, the perfectly understood little tilt of one’s head feels like quite a sophisticated exchange rather than a primitive performance of inter-species communication.
Random thoughts by an anthropologist on living in a time of upheaval.