The masks have been off for so long, will they ever return?
Before the lockdown…
It used to be a question of how you arranged your face – each muscle moved just so to create an impression of polite interest, of comprehension, of presence of more than just the physical. Now, at home, we have divested ourselves of this charade, letting slack muscles lie as they will as phone calls replace face-to-face interactions and WhatsApp chats replace phone calls. [Zoom meetings have convenient photo on and video off options.]
On the one hand, it has stretched us to the point of articulation – without the cues that a face offers, it’s important that the writing be coherent, concise and communicable. On the other, it’s meant forgetting voice, or face modulation.
So what happens when it’s time to head back to office? Will muscle memory ensure the continuity of our relationships at and outside work? Or will the long break from facial exercise mean invisible walls, angst and awkward silences?
For some like me whose anxiety runs like a crisp current in the veins, this is what we are afraid of when thinking of a return to office. It isn’t the actual sitting at a desk instead of comfy cushions through a 10-hour day and it isn’t the work itself, it’s more the idea of picking up the corsets of society so neatly hung up at the door and forcing yourself into them; it’s more the fear of what happens when they don’t fit.
I am not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, social anxiety disorder affects about 6.8 per cent of the US population at any given time. And according to ourworldindata.org, a study by Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and reported in Global Burden of Disease study found 284 million people suffered from anxiety in 2017. This number can only have grown since the pandemic spread its pernicious influence late last year, fanning the embers of anxiety that may have been sitting idle in one’s mind.
It’s only been two months after a lifetime of learning to negotiate polite company that we’ve been stuck at home. Yet it feels longer – as though it’s been a concentration of the essence of self. All that laziness that we once stored for the weekend, for when no one was around; the pyjamas, the greasing of hair, the keeping away of make-up has become the day to day.
Thanks to a contact-less system of delivery and the online proliferation of shopping carts, there’s been no need to yank on a pair of shoes or try on a smile or dream up easy conversation either.
Communication being digitized has meant an easy slip into social isolation. And as there have been positives, a spectre of the negative must follow. Using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), researchers in 2011 found that “social isolation and loneliness were associated with a greater risk of being inactive, smoking, as well as reporting multiple health-risk behaviors. Social isolation was also positively associated with blood pressure, C-reactive protein, and fibrinogen levels.” [The findings were published in the journal Health Psychology. ]
Bottom line: All those little behaviours drilled into us, as human children, cemented as we grew older by furrows on others’ faces, are dwindling.
Add a layer of cloth to the mix. A mask like N95, recommended by the World Health Organisation, means a sealed off system – the mouth can twitch in its own time. But that also means being cut off from stimuli. A smile is responded to with another; so what happens if you don’t see it? Is a smile not a smile if no one notices?
When I head back to work…
Would you mind if my eyes didn’t crinkle when we meet? What about if I don’t proffer my hand? Standing at a two-meter distance is all but compulsory and if I do a slather of disinfectant on my desk after you’ve given me a piece of paper, don’t feel bad. All the rules of societal exchange have tumbled onto their heads; it’s an upside down world – the rules are still being remade.
And I am lost for my mask has slipped, crumbling into nothingness. Before the glue of society brings it back, I’m afraid, I’ll need your patience.
At least eye contact remains – and I will smile for you - just don’t stand too close to me.