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Coronavirus and the gift of anonymity

Many people tolerate masks; others can't or won't wear them. Then there’s another category — those who prefer having their faces covered.

Wearing a mask relieves social anxiety for some people. As this pedestrian in Denver may have discovered, it's harder to be recognized when most of your face is covered.
Wearing a mask relieves social anxiety for some people. As this pedestrian in Denver may have discovered, it's harder to be recognized when most of your face is covered.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

In the grocery checkout recently, I chatted with the cashier as he rang up my weekly rotation of pandemic indulgences. As we parroted projections about the “new normal,” he suddenly confided that he’ll miss some of society’s new habits when the virus wanes — particularly masks. He went on to describe the newfound social comfort he feels when wearing them. Anonymity is liberating to him.

He’s not alone. Samantha Matt, a Brookline resident who wrote “Average is the New Awesome,” went viral in June when she tweeted that she couldn’t understand “why people are against wearing masks. Masks protect you from coronavirus yes, but they also protect you from running into people you know in public. Add sunglasses and you are literally in disguise. It’s safe to do anything, anywhere, even in your hometown. This is my dream.” It has been retweeted more than 30,000 times, and liked by nearly half a million people across platforms.

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I asked her how she first realized this benefit. “I went to Horseneck Beach in Westport, and no one was wearing masks,” she said. “But I didn’t want to see anyone I knew. It was a day to get away, so I put on my mask anyway.”

Her tweet also circulated in the largely anonymous halls of Reddit, which have been full of posts about how wearing a mask is helpful for people experiencing insecurity, social anxiety, or simply the desire for more personal space.

That didn’t surprise Stefan Hofmann, director of the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory at Boston University. He warns that avoiding social situations can actually maintain rather than alleviate anxiety. But he adds that “there are occasions when [masks] can be adaptive and useful, and can help people in difficult situations.” People who are experiencing emotional distress can disrupt these emotions by introducing new variants in their behavior, he says, and the sudden new practice of wearing a mask offered one such change.

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Laura Mead is a member of the “socialanxiety” forum on Reddit and a wife, mother of two boys, and photographer in Ontario. Early in the pandemic, she discovered that she preferred wearing masks. “It’s hard to describe what social anxiety is like for me,” she says, “but the relief I get when wearing a mask is like a load off of my shoulders.

“I live in a smallish town with everyone that I grew up with, and the fact that I can run into anyone I know, at any store, substantially contributes to my social anxiety. Knowing that I can now go out and likely won’t be recognized because of my mask helps.”

Bridget Thompson is a writer and graduate student investigating intersections of material culture and sociology.