While most of my readers have been living under various forms of covid-19 restrictions for upwards of eighteen months, for us Kiwis in Aotearoa New Zealand, and especially outside of Auckland it is a novel experience. Social distancing and masks have not been everyday parts of our lives until around 2 months ago when the delta variant finally succeeded in breaching our border security measures and is proving impossible to eradicate, unlike previous variants.
Mask wearing is now mandatory for people aged 12 and over when taking public transport or visiting businesses, and recommended when away from one’s home or “social bubble”. Personally, apart from yet being unable to find a means to avoid the fogging of my glasses, I find my stress level definitely rises to the point where it can’t be ignored after about 30 minutes of continuous mask wearing, and I need to remove it, even if only for a minute, to restore myself to something resembling normalcy. I can usually achieve that by retiring to the car or finding an out of the way park seat or equivalent where the mask can be briefly removed in safety.
However, that’s not the most serious downside to mask wearing. I have always had impaired hearing. I was diagnosed as having 70%-90% hearing loss when I was around 7 or 8. Normally I can get by reasonably well, and when a word or two can’t be clearly recognised, I can usually deduce it by context. It’s only just in the past week that it has really dawned on me how reliant I am on lip reading as an essential component of my ability to understand the spoken word.
I’ve recently had several occasions where it has been necessary to converse with a shop assistant while making a purchase. In one case it was a quiet environment but I was unable to recognise even half the words spoken by the assistant. Often I was unable to understand even the gist of what he said. By the end of the transaction I suspect he was just as frustrated as I was about the slow progress of our conversation. I found the entire process embarrassing and somewhat humiliating.
Later in the week, I visited a somewhat noiser shop where I had gone to pick up some items I had bought and paid for online. Sure I could have had them delivered, but the delivery would have cost more than the products. I’m not a penny pincher, but we do have a fixed and somewhat limited budget to live on. In theory I should have been in and out of the shop inside of a minute, but it was not to be. It didn’t help that the online instructions for collecting online purchases were incorrect for the local branch. In fact it may have been less confusing if there had been no instructions at all.
After waiting at the counter under a sign reading “Collect online purchases here” and seemingly being ignored, I sought out a shop assistant and explained why I was there. To cut a long story short, it took over half an hour to collect my purchase and only then because I finally resorted to seeking yes or no replies or asking them to point or make a specific gesture order for them to communicate with me. At no time did it occur to them to initiate non-spoken communication. I found I had to give specific instructions. Even when I discovered that where I was waiting for my pickup is no longer applicable, and then asking where I should go, no one thought to point in the appropriate direction until I specifically asked them to point with their arm/hand/finger in which direction I should go.
I’m not sure what sort of privileged lives the young people working in that shop have “endured”, but it was apparent to me that they wouldn’t understand the irony of directing a wheelchair bound person to take the stairs to a different floor or instructing a blind person to read a sign painted on the wall. I would have thought that people with disabilities are encountered often enough that most non-disabled folk would have some level of understanding or empathy. Apparently not.
Come to think of it, while I don’t consider being autistic as being disabled, some of the hyposensitivities and hypersensitivities that result from being autistic can be made disabling by a lack of empathy, and sometimes by antagonism in the 99% of the population who are neurotypical. So in hindsight I really shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of understanding or empathy I have received over the past week or so due to no longer being able to augment spoken conversation by lip reading.
Perhaps I am on more common ground with neurotypicals when it come to reading facial expressions of those who are masked. I’ve heard and read many complaints about how much more likely it is to misunderstand someone or be misunderstood when masks cover so much of the face. I’ve queried a few acquaintances about this, and they tell me that it does reduce the amount of non-verbal communication they receive. The amount of perceived loss seems to vary considerably. When pressed, it’s varied from “some” to “heaps” (a lot).
Most people don’t think about how much body language and facial expressions contribute to spoken communication until it’s brought to their attention or they find it missing from others or they realise their own intentions are not always fully understood. The necessity to wear masks is bringing the significance of non-verbal forms of communication to the attention of some of the more socially aware folk.
My own (admittedly very anecdotal) investigation suggests that people rely on the eyes as much, if not more, than other facial expressions. So while a mask can reduce the amount of non-verbal information received, it doesn’t eliminate it. If anyone has tried the Mind in the eye test, they will realise how much most people can read from looking at the eyes alone. So spare a moment to consider the situation I now find myself in.
I do very poorly when reading facial expressions. I can recognise a few basic facial expressions, but if I rely solely on the eyes I’m lost. The average for adults taking the Mind in the eye test is 26 out of a possible score of 36, but varies from 17 to 35. Women average slightly higher than men. For autistics, the average is 22. I’ve tried the test many times, and the best I have ever done is 17 out of the possible score of 36. Typically I hover around the score that might result from random selection – a one in four chance of getting the correct answer for any given question – 9 out of 36. In other words, I haven’t a clue how to read eyes.
It is becoming clear to me that what emotions I can read from the face depend almost entirely on the mouth and now that they are effectively hidden behind masks, I am blind to emotions being expressed unless someone describes their emotion(s) in words. I’m really not sure how I can effectively remedy the the losses I now realise I am faced with, as I don’t see the likelihood of masks being done away with for some considerable time, if at all.
I’ve spent seventy years learning how to limit social faux pas, and more importantly, how to recognise them when they occur so that I can take remedial action. I can foresee that mask wearing will set me back decades. Perhaps it’s time I seriously thought about becoming a hermit as a full time occupation.