How is the mask perceived in the world?

The mask is the universal symbol of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a crucial accessory to contain the contagion. An overview of a diversely shared habit.

How is the mask perceived in the world?

The mask is the universal symbol of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a crucial accessory to contain the contagion. An overview of a diversely shared habit. We can see two cultural nuances in the wearing of the mask: Asia, which has adopted it for several years, and the rest of the world.

Singularity of Asia: an automatism

It is from the beginning of the 20th century, during the plague pandemic, that the wearing of the mask made its appearance. Nevertheless, it was not systematically used.

The mask became an everyday object of the Chinese - like hats and scarves - with the SARS epidemic (2002-2004). It helped to normalize it, transforming it into "an everyday, playful, personalized object", observes medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris.

Indeed, this epidemic is unexpected, traumatic and has a mortality rate of 10%, which is very high.

Masks therefore become a reflex at this time and Asians will continue to use them to protect themselves from pollution, colds and other flues.

There is a context - that of pollution - which has encouraged the continuation of this habit.

People who do not wear masks in Asia are stigmatized, to the point of being avoided or even banned from certain stores and buildings.

People who do not wear masks in the subway or on the street are very badly seen. One must wear a mask to avoid contaminating others. In Asia, the wearing of masks is perceived as a consideration of the collective interest.

Cultural differences in Asia: intimacy and society

Intimacy is also perceived differently. Intimate demonstration in public is avoided in Asia.

"They don't kiss you to say hello but they don't kiss each other or very little because they don't want to show themselves. [...] There is no problem for them to hide their faces, and therefore their intimacy, in the street," explains anthropologist Pierre Le Roux.

This point concerns pimping (physical and social distance) and its levels. Edward T. Hall conceptualizes it by speaking of the social sphere (two to three meters), personal (one meter), then intimate (less than 40 centimeters).  "When a Japanese woman talks to you, she will put her hand in front of her mouth to hide it, because it is an intimate cavity. She wants both to prevent you from receiving her breath but also to protect her intimacy, her being."

Other cultural aspects stand out: the organization of society. Wearing a mask is not experienced as a constraint.

"Societies are vertical, pyramidal and respect a social seniority - and therefore also a juniority - where each person obeys his elder. The latter is above us by the money he possesses, but also by notoriety or power. The younger obey respectfully and actively, but it must also be pointed out that a suzerain exists only if he has vassals. He is the driving force behind the societies of the Far East and Southeast Asia," explains Pierre Le Roux.

The Asians only very rarely expose their intimacy in public and have a very deep-rooted respect for order. Wearing a mask seems extremely natural to them.

Cultural differences in Western societies: sense of collective and individual freedom

In an op-ed published in Le Monde, anthropologist Frédéric Keck invokes "the public space as a place where the citizen presents himself with his face uncovered", a legacy of the Enlightenment realized by the French Revolution, to explain French reticence.

In countries where the wearing of masks is not the norm, as in the West, those who wear masks are sometimes looked upon condescendingly (notably and especially before the Covid19 health crisis ).

In some Western countries, the wearing of masks may be considered an infringement of individual freedom, where the obligation does not pass. Many American cities and citizens refuse to wear it or impose it.

Among the 50 or so states that impose it, there are several levels: from a simple fine to arrest, as in Chad, with a prison sentence of up to 15 days.

Cultural values are very much present behind the wearing of the mask: a sense of community and respect for authority on the one hand, and freedom and human rights on the other. There is also a pragmatism opposing scientific theory: some have nothing to lose by wearing a mask, others remain skeptical if it is not scientifically proven.

The lack of familiarity is shown in unorthodox uses: masks under the chin or nose that protrudes. 

In Iraq, AFP has observed some astonishing scenes: customers leaving a store passing their masks to those entering it...

AND tomorrow: are we going to continue to wear a mask?

If the world integrates the wearing of masks into its habits, it will come as no surprise to see them being worn in winter and spring to fight the flu, colds or allergies. This is a condition for having a mask that is effective for different uses. The scourge of pollution whose number of victims is between 7 and 8 times higher in the world is called "invisible killer".

If the world is inspired by Asian behavior, then prolonging our habit of wearing masks in a context of pollution and/or seasonal viruses will be natural. The mask will thus be like a scarf, an essential accessory.

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