Do's and Don'ts About Mask Bullying

The Do’s and Don’ts of Mask Shaming

I admit I look silly with my shield mask, but this was early March when we Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was in short supply. All I could find on Amazon was the shield and bandana. I do much better now with my mask. I shared this picture to let you know I speak from experience when it comes to mask bullying. Most mask wearers believe the mask will protect them from the Covid-19 while non-mask wearers believe the mask will increase their risk for catching Covid-19. Whether you wear or don’t wear masks shaming isn’t helpful to anyone. Strangers have approached me on multiple occasions to comment on my mask wearing…. so I thought I’d share some suggestions on what to do or not do when it comes to discussing someone’s preferred mask wearing choice in a civil way.

What not to do

1. Don’t label or insult. If you call someone a “Covidiot” or a “selfish racist,” what are the odds they will engage in a period of deep reflection before giving you a Facebook hug, thanking you for enlightening them, and asking where they can purchase a sweatshop-free mask? 

Name-calling is counter productive. It destroys trust, creates hostility, and can make a person even less apt to wear a mask just to spite you. They may very well have racist beliefs that lead them to devalue the lives of Black and brown virus victims, but the minute you call them a racist, they will stop listening, and you will have achieved nothing.

2. Don’t be self-righteous, condescending, or judgmental. Like insults, casting blame or making moral judgments puts people on the defensive. It doesn’t matter that heeding public health directives is objectively better than not doing so, just like it doesn’t matter that bringing cloth bags to the grocery store is objectively better for the environment than not. If you are sanctimonious about your behavioral choices, people who don’t yet subscribe to them will be annoyed and disgusted, and they will not contemplate changing their ways.

In the early days of the pandemic, my Facebook feed was filled with stern reprimands of those who were considering wearing a mask to protect themselves. Mask-wearers, they said, were selfish, bad people who didn’t care that health care workers were facing an N-95 mask shortage. Even a bandanna sent the wrong message. Then, the evidence started stacking up: Masks reduced virus transmission by 75%, and countries that required masks were flattening the curve faster than those that didn’t. Now, social media is saturated with denunciations of Americans who refuse to wear a mask. Acknowledgement that such contradictions are confusing and frustrating can go a long way.

3. Don’t vilify or polarize. Though the virus is now hitting republican states and some rural areas hard, this was not the case in the early days of the pandemic. It’s understandable that people whose suffering stems more from the economic and social impacts of the shutdown than from the virus would be more likely to rebel against public health prescriptions than those grieving the loss of loved ones.

Trump has politicized the virus and modeled irresponsible behavior, leading many Republicans to believe that the proper way for Republicans in good standing to conduct themselves is to go maskless and demand that businesses reopen pronto. While many may have selfish motivations, others may be experiencing financial catastrophe as their small businesses or workplaces are shut down.

Still others may feel the sting of being considered “nonessential” in a capitalist economy that measures human worth in terms of productive output. Regardless of their motivations, taking cues from the leaders of one’s party is normal human behavior.

Liberals, too, play into Trump’s hand by accusing COVID-19 deniers or skeptics of being “Trump death cult” members. (Again, it doesn’t matter if it’s true—what matters is the impact of the statement). When framed as “us against them,” Team Republican" is prompted to disregard mask advocates and take their cues from their fellow Republicans. This is an example of a polarizing post that springboards off the meme of “Karens” (entitled White women who are passive-aggressively racist). It belittles and ridicules them and implies that anyone who doesn’t mask is either racist, pathetically fragile, or both. It also gratuitously polarizes the wearing of masks by creating an “us” (virtuous, anti-racist mask-wearers) versus “them” (selfish, racist mask-resisters) dynamic. Such divisiveness hardens the battle lines that Trump has drawn and embitters opposing factions in ways that make the pandemic that much harder to overcome.

4. Don’t use hashtags. #maskon or #masks4all sound innocent enough, but research shows that hashtags are polarizing. A hashtag is like a neon sign announcing, “This is a highly controversial topic, and you must pick a side. If you pick the wrong side, I will hate you. If you pick the right side, then fellow members of your stupid backwards tribe will hate you.” It’s lose-lose.

5. Don’t tell people you hope they will die. I think this one speaks for itself.

What to do

  1. Gently use credible messengers. From the CDC and the medical experts. Public health educators have to be trusted and accepted in the communities where they work. If the target audience is conservatives, look for conservative public health educators that they would be more likely to trust. Or share conservative football player and COVID-19 survivor Tony Boselli who has said many things worth amplifying.

2. Be Culturally Appropriate. Credible messengers should be culturally appropriate and inspiring. But if you’re trying to reach conservative Whites, Another cultural vein to tap is patriotism or pride of place. A mask that says “COVID: Don’t mess with Duval” or a mask with a sports team logo or an American flag pattern will be as appealing to some people as a “Black Lives Matter” mask is to others. You want the person to think to themselves, “The people wearing masks are my kind of people. They must have good reasons for masking. I should probably mask too.”

3. Lean into people’s desire to protect their own. Appeal to our shared humanity. Protecting vulnerable members of one’s family or community is a natural human impulse. It is present, at least to some degree, in everyone. But sometimes it can be stamped out by countervailing desires, fears, disinformation, or polarizing rhetoric.

If someone feels that masking infringes their liberty, you can’t expect to convince them that masking does not infringe their liberty or that their liberty is of secondary importance to public health. What you can do is suggest that people like them, people who care about others, are people who make personal sacrifices, such as masking, to protect others.

4. Present clear information. provide straightforward information in a non-argumentative manner. Make clear the value of mask-wearing and leave it to the person to draw their own conclusions about whether they should mask up.

Share the story of the Missouri nail salon that opened and, even with two sick hairstylists, none of the 140 masked customers contracted the virus. The moral of the story is: Masks save lives—yay! We all want to reopen the economy, and masks help us do this.

We are all experiencing stress and anxiety at the moment. Please don’t take your stress out on other’s. All of us want to save lives and restart our economy.

Dr. Fitness