But while masks are good for public health, they also make our interactions more difficult by concealing the lower part of our face. The constant social ambiguity might get harder to take once states start opening up more fully, and we resume some of our regular activities. Some experts say that might portend a push toward different types of coverings that don’t hide our face. Or, it might mean that our norms of communication will change, perhaps forever.
Read: The real reason to wear a mask
David Matsumoto, a psychologist who runs a body-language-training company called Humintell, told me that we might be losing a lot of context if we’re communicating with only our eyes, especially from six feet away. “A lot of the visual cues that you see in normal interaction is that large part of the face from the bridge of the nose down,” Matsumoto said. Without these cues, there’s a much greater chance of misunderstanding. Whether you’re being genuine or sarcastic, for instance, stems from the shape of your mouth when you say it. Even the most expert “smizer” has probably worried that they look mad with a mask on. It’s also harder to develop and maintain social bonds when you’re not talking with your full face. “That’s why we have ‘face-to-face interactions’ and not ‘knee-to-knee interactions,’” Matsumoto said.
If people get fed up with masks, one option might be to use face shields: clear-plastic guards attached to a headband. These at least allow you to see your interlocutor’s face, and for the hearing impaired, they allow for lip-reading. For people working in jobs that require a face covering, face shields might simply be more pleasant to wear all day. “I can imagine that if you were bagging groceries six hours a day that it would be probably much more comfortable to wear a face shield,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University.
No studies have yet compared whether masks or face shields are more effective at preventing coronavirus transmission, but it’s possible that shields might keep us safer. Michael Edmond, a University of Iowa epidemiologist, has written that face shields reduce exposure to more than 90 percent of flu droplets from a cough, and unlike masks, they have the added benefit of keeping viral droplets out of a person’s eyes. People wearing masks might also be tempted to scratch or touch their face, but people wearing shields physically can’t.
Yet Cowling said he doesn’t think a face shield would be as effective as a mask for this pandemic. While a shield could protect the wearer from large droplets, he said, it wouldn’t prevent them from spewing the virus. (Edmond points out that a cloth mask does not perfectly keep in droplets, either.)
Then there is face shields’ distinctive look. They are, well, dorky. Edmond says many of the staffers at the hospital where he works wear face shields, and they’ve gotten used to walking around looking like Lego welders. But regular people might not be ready.