As mask mandates are loosened, Americans who opt to continue wearing face masks face harassment

"Triggering": psychologists weigh in on what makes some Americans so angry about seeing others in face masks

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published March 8, 2022 4:52PM (EST)

Scared young man in casual style with surgical medical mask  (Getty Images/Khosrork)
Scared young man in casual style with surgical medical mask (Getty Images/Khosrork)

Last week, a video went viral of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis telling high school students to take off their masks and dismissing the wearing of face masks as "Covid theater."

DeSantis was at the University of South Florida in Tampa to announce $20 million in funding for cybersecurity and IT training opportunities— nothing to do with masks and COVID-19. "You do not have to wear those masks," he said, clearly humiliating the students, with a tinge of anger in his voice. "So if you wanna wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous."

A tweet from reporter Evan Donovan of WFLA (who initially erroneously reported DeSantis' audience as college students, when they were actually high school students) contains a video of the incident:

DeSantis' words were perhaps unsurprising given the governor's public stance against mask mandates and vaccinations. Yet these kinds of mask-mocking outbursts are not limited to sitting governors. The Miami Herald recently asked its readers for their tales of being harassed in public for wearing a mask. One reader said they were called a "communist" and a "Fauci puppet" for donning a mask. "I didn't say anything and just walked away, while he screamed that I should be ashamed of myself for surrendering to tyranny," the reader, who lived in Florida, said.

As mask mandates lift across the country, many Americans are choosing to keep wearing a mask in public places where they're no longer required — like the grocery store, offices and restaurants. Notably, wearing a face mask in public was common in many countries pre-pandemic; it is not a new public behavior by any means. Yet not all bystanders are tolerant of those who are still masked up. Durin (who asked not to use his last name), who lives in Washington, D.C., says he was snubbed by a coworker wearing a mask. "I wear a mask indoors most of the time, because around D.C. most restaurants I go to still require employees to wear a mask," Durin told Salon.

RELATED: Covid still threatens millions of Americans. Why are we so eager to move on?

Indeed, what is sometimes called "mask-shaming" has taken various forms throughout the pandemic. Anecdotally, more Americans report that it seems to be becoming common once more.

That might seem like a cultural oddity. After all, the United States has a notoriously laissez-faire culture; why are some Americans so embittered about others donning a mask to the extent that some opt to publicly humiliate them?

In the more extreme cases, like DeSantis, psychologist Dr. Carla Manly — author of "Joy from Fear" — believes that mask-shaming stems from an person's inability, and unwillingness, to honor the personal preferences of another person.

"A lack of empathy — the ability to put yourself in another person's shoes — is also apparent when shaming of this sort occurs," Manly said. "Judgmental attitudes and rigid thinking patterns foster the 'right or wrong' mindset that is at work in 'mask shaming.'"

In some cases, Manly said, actual bullying — as in exerting pressure or force to another person to confirm — occurs.

Manly tied mask-shaming to emotional intelligence, or a lack thereof.

"In truth, those who are emotionally intelligent tend to steer clear of judging and shaming others; there is simply no healthy upside to this type of behavior," Manly said. The choice to wear a mask — or not — is a very personal one; a person who chooses to wear a mask has the right to do so; to infringe on this right is not only unkind but wholly unfair."

Indeed, there has been much ado over the "empathy deficit" in America over the last decade. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), scientific research supports the idea that Americans are becoming less caring for others. Psychologists say genetics can play a role in an individual's lack of empathy, yet community or the lack of community plays a role, too. 

Conversely, California-based therapist Nick Bognar said that in some scenarios, mask-shamers could be well-meaning yet express it poorly. In other words, some might genuinely think they are helping others by reminding them they don't have to wear a mask anymore.

While the CDC says due to low transmission rates masks aren't needed in many parts of the U.S. for everyone anymore, many scientists disagree — and in any case, those who are high-risk or immunocompromised might understandably want to keep donning theirs.

"People might think that they're doing someone a favor by reminding them that they don't have to wear a mask," Bognar said. He noted that there is a common narrative circulating in some communities that posits that masks are a means to control people. "For those of us who understand that the masks are meant to be a simple, preventative health and safety measure, those beliefs are incomprehensible — but to the people who believe them, the threat of being controlled or having one's freedoms taken away is very real, and those people are terrified."

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Bognar said it is notable how "triggering" mask-wearing can be for some people.

"To me, the interesting (and meaningful) piece of it is how angrily people have responded to others wearing masks, which points to how triggering this issue is for them," Bognar said. "Although Governor DeSantis has dismissed masks as 'COVID theater', people do all kinds of theatrical and demonstrative things without anyone confronting them about it."

If one is mask-shamed, Manly said the best response is usually "no response at all."

"If a situation seems volatile, it's often wise to avoid giving any attention to those engaging in shaming behaviors," Manly said. "In some situations, the most beneficial response may be to simply walk away."

However, if mask-shaming occurs in a "low-conflict environment," Manly said it's acceptable for a person to state their preferences in a "simple, respectful way."

"In fact, a well-crafted statement that honors each individual's right to make decisions can deescalate the situation quickly," Manly said. "As an example, you might say, 'I honor your choice to not wear a mask, I find it necessary to wear a mask; please respect my choice just as I respect yours. Thank you.'"

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By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Covid-19 Mask Mandates Mask Shaming Psychology Public Health Reporting