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  • Writer's pictureClaire Lawrence

Shame and humiliation: Managing masks part 1

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

We are all afraid of something. What scares you? Consistently, research shows that, when asked, speaking in public – think presentations at work, having to make a speech at a wedding – comes at the top or near the top of most lists. When we unpick this, it’s not the actual speaking that frightens us most. It is the fear that something will go wrong in public (What if my mind goes blank? What if I say something inappropriate? What if no one laughs at my joke?). The thought of being evaluated negatively, and in a very public setting, grips even the most confident of us with dread. This anticipation or experience of shame and humiliation are very powerful emotions, especially when we don’t feel that we can easily redress the situation. As a psychologist working in the field of interpersonal aggression, this resonates with what is happening in relation to the wearing of face masks during the COVID-19.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, across the world, different nations have made different requests from their citizens in terms of what behaviours are expected or mandated. No requirement has been so divisive as the issue of mask-wearing. Most countries experiencing relatively high community transmission of COVID-19 have required people to wear face masks when inside shops, public transport, in medical settings and some work and educational settings. All of these are public settings. Other regulations have typically been relatively private so that non-compliance can all be done away the public ‘gaze’, for example, hand-washing or regulations regarding the number of people visiting a private dwelling.

Wearing a face mask is very different. Not wearing a face mask when required is a very visible and public act. Those not wearing a mask (for whatever reason) risk, and anticipate, public disapproval, negative evaluation and hostility from others. Lines have been drawn politically with mask-wearing becoming a visible sign of what wide people are on – and so challenging others on the wearing (or not wearing) of masks can easily become entangled with assumptions of other traits and beliefs.

The experience or anticipation of humiliation has been shown to increase aggression in many studies. To further exacerbate the situation, people who are more sensitive to provocation are more likely to interpret challenges over mask-wearing as humiliating and hostile.

The management of mask-wearing in workplaces (restaurants, pubs and bar, shops and public transport especially) is a difficult task to balance safely and effectively, but humiliation an overlooked and dangerous emotion. By making the avoidance of humiliation and shame as a first line position, we can make some steps towards generating a safer place for staff, customers, clients and service users.

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Sep 28, 2020

Thanks, Nigel. I agree - mask wearing (or non-wearing) brings out very strong emotions. It is an important issue for workplaces to manage. Part 2 of this blog coming soon!


Sep 28, 2020

In my experience as a non-mask wearer (serious illness) this is a pertinent issue. I am shocked by the extremism over this issue. People who are normally liberal-minded and open are very aggressive. The law doesn't help, saying on the one hand that we will be fined for not wearing masks and on the other that we can self-determine not to wear them for what are quite vague reasons.

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