You’re standing in line at the grocery store and someone nearby strikes up a conversation with you in a very familiar manner. Because you are both wearing face masks you aren’t sure who this person is. Moreover, you can’t be certain they know with whom they are speaking.
Welcome to pandemic social norms.
Face masks that cover the nose, mouth and chin have been shown to slow the spread of COVID-19 and are now mandatory in public settings in Maine. But masks also obscure the features that we use to recognize each other and convey social cues.
“We get so much information from the face and a smile or frown,” said Andrea Pastore of Etiquette Solutions in Scarborough. “The face is that part of a person that we read and tells us who they are.”
Pastore said the issue of recognizing people — even those they’ve known for years — wearing masks is cropping up in boardrooms, work spaces, schools, shops and on the street. And it’s presenting challenges to deeply rooted social behaviors.
“We rely on social cues and not just visual ones, but auditory as well,” said Lorien Lake-Corral, associate professor of sociology at University of Maine at Augusta. “A lot of those cues are obscured by both wearing masks and having to be socially distant.”
Information people use to identify someone like facial features or sound of their voice are covered or muffled. So what can one do?
When in doubt, Pastore said, honesty is the best policy.
“There is nothing wrong with being honest and saying to someone who is speaking to you, ‘Excuse me, you look like so and so, but I am not sure,’” she said. “It may not be what we are used to doing, but it’s what we need to do now.”
In those cases in which you want to be 100 percent sure of someone’s identity before you initiate conversation, Pastore suggests making a connection by referencing a common event or memory.
“You can say, ‘I think I recognize you because we met at this time or place,’” Pastore said. “That not only confirms who they are, but it also lets them off the hook trying to figure out who you are.”
The one thing to never do, according to Janet Parnes, social conversation and etiquette consultant, is make the other person feel awkward.
“All of our rules of etiquette stem from making people feel valued,” Parnes said. “We can try to fudge our way through a conversation or we can acquire the information on who the masked person is in a way that makes them feel valued.”
The best way to do that, Parnes said, is to let them know you associate names with faces and with people wearing masks you are at a loss so could they please remind you of their name. Once they do identify themselves Parnes suggests immediately making a comment relating to something the two of you have in common.
“When you mention something you both have done or seen, it tells that other person it’s the name, not the individual you could not remember,” Parnes said. “You don’t want people to think you have forgotten who they are.”
And when you’re the one who isn’t recognized immediately, that’s okay. Take it in stride.
“Saying ‘You don’t remember me, do you’ is not the best approach,” Pastore said. “It makes people feel badly.”
Instead, help the person out by sliding your own name into the conversation if you sense they are struggling to identify you.
Pastore also does not discount the idea of wearing a name tag, especially as winter approaches and people cover up even more of their faces and heads against cold weather.
“We wore name tags on our first days of school when we were children,” Pastore said. “If you were to go to a conference or networking event you always would be wearing your business card or name tag.”
Above all else, Pastore reminds people to be kind.
“We are all very sensitive right now and trying to figure things out,” she said. “We need to cut each other some slack.
There may be one silver lining in having to negotiate social cues while masked, according to Lake-Corral.
“As we interact with each other while masked we are going to have to take more time to look people in the eyes and pick up more information,” Lake-Corral said. “Taking that time to really pay attention to each other is good for our mental health so if we are limited on what social cues now, let’s take the time with the ones we do have.”