“Do we hug?” This has been a recurring question whenever I see someone I know well and when attending recent in-person events.
It’s a rather awkward situation as we’ve been in Covid-19 protocols limbo ever since vaccinations entered the equation. Not only is relearning social etiquette a real challenge, two years of working from home in isolation has stunted our ability to interact beyond our lockdown bubbles.
But ever more people have been ditching their masks at social gatherings. This protocol limbo just enhances the divide the pandemic has created in the world: half the population feared catching the virus, while the other half feared being controlled by governments.
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But now there’s some clarity with the announcement that the wearing of masks is no longer required. I say “some clarity” because, in most countries, the wearing of masks has been deemed “voluntary” despite the relaxing of restrictions, depending on your age, comorbidities and personal comfort levels in public spaces.
I’ll be joining the group of “volunteers” – those who have pledged to continue to wear face masks. Let me explain.
This is a common respiratory virus that is accompanied by a nagging dry cough. It can be especially serious in infants and older people.
It’s been particularly severe because we’ve been wearing masks for two years and our immune systems are not used to fighting off the flu viruses. In-person events are back, and that means, as a public speaker, I might have to attend three or more public events in one week.
It’s not problematic if you are part of the audience attending one of these events, but, as a speaker, it is if I am required to come into contact with hundreds of people within the same week.
I hope that, in a post-pandemic world, mask-wearing will not raise eyebrows or invite judgemental looks, but rather become matter of fact as it is in Asia, where mask-wearing was commonplace even before the pandemic.
The first time I came across people wearing masks in Asia, I was stunned to discover that, contrary to my thought that they were being germ-phobic, it was more of a courtesy to fellow citizens if the mask-wearer was feeling ill and did not want to spread their infection. That level of civic consideration blew my mind. We need more of that.
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Apart from spreading germs, there is another psychological reason some people will continue to wear their masks. When researching Flux Trends’ emerging, post-pandemic tribes, we identified a tribe we named The Incognitos. They are a cohort who had already pledged to keep wearing their masks after being vaccinated because it created a psychological barrier and eased social anxiety.
Last year, American clinical psychologist Dr Susan Albers was already sensing that many people with social anxiety were dreading the day when mask-wearing mandates were to be lifted.
One voluntary mask-wearer was 44-year-old Aimee in Los Angeles, US, who decided to keep wearing a mask in public even after she had been vaccinated because it gave her “emotional freedom”.
“I don’t want to feel the pressure of smiling at people to make sure everyone knows I’m friendly and likable. It’s almost like taking away the male gaze. There’s freedom in taking that power back,” she said.
Albers adds another layer to this thinking. “Remember that superheroes wear masks,” she says. “And they do so to be anonymous and, when we feel anonymous, we are bolder, we step out of our comfort zone and we adopt other roles that we don’t traditionally.”
After two years of wearing a mask, the “incognito” phenomenon makes complete sense. I still fail to recognise people in public if they have a mask on, more so in winter, when people are hidden under scarves and hats. Just like Aimee, that level of anonymity can be somewhat appealing.
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Now that we’ve explored the hidden nuances of mask- wearing, we’ll need to tackle the other awkward, pre-pandemic ritual of shaking hands.
I’m prepared to offer you a fist bump when we meet, but sweaty palm contact? Now that’s just a bridge too far.
Chang is the founder of Flux Trends.For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com