Masking Up….
…the unintended side-effect of anonymity


Once upon a time only Superhero’s and villains donned masks to hide their identity.  The 2020 pandemic has changed that reality for all of us.  In the not too distant past, if you were being approached by two or three masked men on the street, alarm bells in your head began to ring!  You immediately began looking for avenues of escape or you prepared for the onslaught of an expected assault.  Today, those “menacingly” masked men are far more likely to simply pass you by without a thought.

Times have indeed changed.  Due to the mandated wearing of masks, it is now far more likely that you will be more concerned when approached by unmasked public encounters. However, this new reality has had another concerning side effect as well.  Now, almost everyone we meet can hide behind their mask of anonymity.  While this should not be a concern for the average person, in many cases it has resulted in more aggressive interactions between people.

There is a reason that people will behave in a more aggressive manner towards others if they believe they will not be held accountable for those actions. It is the psychological effect of “masking the face,” that can cause other issues that we are only now truly understanding.  Kathleen M. Pike, PhD, published the following statement recently. “Masks block a lot more than COVID-19 droplets. In some contexts, non-verbal communication accounts for the majority of what we understand in our social exchanges. With our faces half-covered, we lose key non-verbal information…”

Masked Rage…

Most people have witnessed (or experienced) aggressive language, personal attacks, physical threats and name-calling from complete and total strangers when a divisive or controversial subject is posted online.  You may happen to make a comment about a posting that you feel is totally innocuous yet out-of-nowhere insults and aggressive comments are hurled upon you.  The question you may often wonder is…would this person be speaking to me like this if they were literally standing in front of me?!

The likely answer is, they probably would not behave as aggressively towards you if you could see them and were physically in close proximity to them.  Many psychologists suggest that anonymity allows a person to more easily act outside of their personal mores.  As the old adage goes, there is more than one reason an executioner’s identity is kept hidden.

Anonymity allows for untethered actions that we would normally not want associated with our identity.  There are legal, personal, financial and psychological reasons that most people would not want “bad-behavior,” associated with themselves.  Most people don’t want to be “caught,” after exhibiting bad behavior because they do not want to deal with the ramifications of that behavior being connected to their name.

Skip the Eyes…Watch the Hands

Now that we cannot easily tell when someone is sneering under a mask at us or is so angry their lips are trembling; the question becomes what other tell-tale physical signs might they be presenting that lets us know that they are agitated enough to assault us?  As Kathleen Pike reminds us, “With our faces half-covered, we lose…other information, (like) raised eyebrows and shoulder shrugs become highly ambiguous without cues from the mouth.”

Yes, you will still likely hear the volume of an agitated person’s voice increase, but their words may be muffled and hard to understand…making it harder for you to try and de-escalate the situation.  You may not be able to tell that they are literally “spitting-mad,” as they continue to raise their voice.  Are their nostrils flared with rage? Are their cheeks flushed with anger?  These are all physical indicators that may be masked from us. 

What other visible physical indicators might we notice?  Below are a few to be alert for.

  • Tightly balled, clenched fists.
  • An expanded neck.  Possibly with bulging veins and/or a flushed coloration.
  • The body trembling with anticipation of a physical confrontation.  Possibly adrenalin induced.
  • Heavy, hard or labored breathing.  You may even see the shoulders raising and lowering.
  • A hunched over, aggressively physical body position.
  • They may be “puffed-up,” or attempt to look bigger than they are.
  • Rapid eye movement and/or dilated pupils.

Remember this, their eyes nor words can kill you.  However, their hands (and to a lesser extent) elbows, knees and feet can inflict tremendous damage.  Always know where their hands are and if they are empty or are holding a weapon.  Keep in mind that “social distancing,” is another way of saying that you should never let strangers within arms-reach.

Potential Villains Still Wear Masks…

It is important you don’t fall into the trap of letting your guard down simply because literally everyone wears a mask now.  Truth be told, you should have always approached all strangers as a potential adversary regardless of how they were dressed.  However, since most people associated someone wearing a mask inappropriately (a mask in hot weather as an example) as an individual of “interest,” that model no longer works.

Case in point, last year we had a customer who said she literally read a potential assailants’ lips when he told a buddy that he was going to, “…. follow that chick to her car.”  She said, “I was 20 feet from that guy in a loud venue and saw him looking at me for several minutes, he happened to glance away when he told his accomplice his intent.”  It was obvious what he had said.  I was able to take precautions to avoid that situation, nevertheless, I was glad I had my Yellow Jacket with me!

Masks have changed the way we look at people.  How they look at us.  They have diminished our ability to communicate with each other both verbally and non-verbally…and they have placed many of us at a distinct disadvantage in recognizing a potential assault.  Now more than ever it is important that you keep your guard up and your defensive tool close at hand.