David Bouchier: The Man Behind The Mask

Mar 22, 2021

About a year ago, like most of you, I enjoyed my last live public event. It was a library talk about music and, in spite of ominous rumblings and warnings about the new virus, we had a good audience. Nobody was wearing a mask. We’ve been hearing many such stories around this one-year anniversary — the last family gathering, the last sociable dinner, the last haircut or the last long-distance flight. All our social relationships and interactions have become distant and obscure.

In the remote and un-masked 1960s I was intrigued by the work of a Canadian sociologist called Erving Goffman, whose research was all about social relationships and interactions. You could say that he discovered nothing new, but in effect he introduced us to ourselves. “What is social life?” he asked, and answered: “It is a performance.” This would not have surprised Shakespeare, who wrote: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” We all understand that. But Professor Goffman got down to the detail. How exactly do we put on our social performances, and what happens when they go wrong? He was fascinated by the common predicaments and awkward moments of social life, when things normally concealed are accidentally revealed as when scenery collapses on a theater stage, or an actor forgets his lines.

These small details of social life are fascinating. They reveal a delicate and elaborate dance of tiny signals, many of them conveyed by facial expressions. The question is: how much have our social performances been changed by mask-wearing? How are we getting on without using one of our most basic social signals?

Masks have a long and somewhat sinister history. In everyday life a mask is unwelcoming, and even threatening. Bad boys wear masks, and facial recognition technology and CCTV are now useless as long as criminals obey the COVID rules, which I’m sure they do.

In this kind of world many of our normal human signals are concealed and we venture into the quicksand of social life, as it were, blind and without a map. The smile, that most universal signal of friendliness and acceptance, might equally well be a glare of hatred — we can’t tell.

But in spite of that it seems that we are getting along quite well. Social life and civility have not collapsed, and we are developing new forms of communication. More expressive body language, the eyes and eyebrows, and above all the voice can do a lot to reveal what the mask conceals. Where veils are worn for religious reasons, people seem to get along with no trouble at all.

So, it’s a new kind of faceless sociability, but let’s hope it doesn’t last too long. We can never know what is going on behind those masks, and others don’t know what’s behind ours. It would be easy to give up trying, and to stop sending signals that cannot be received — to go around with a blank lack of expression as a matter of habit. But, as Professor Goffman warned: “What starts out as your mask may become your face.”

Copyright: David Bouchier