I’d Love to Go Long Masks, and… Maybe Someday! Tasks for the American Mask Manufacturers Association

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Let’s get the engineering stuff out of the way first, because masking is too important to be left to the medical community. Covid is airborne (a.k.a. aerosol transmission); people infect each other with Covid via “shared air”, which floats like cigarette smoke. Masks work to prevent airborne transmission of viriuses, and other particles of appropriate size, e.g. PM2.5[1]. All this is settled engineering; no RCTs needed[2].

* * *

The way we live now, in a world where the danger of airborne diseases is known to be real, “personal risk assessment” is the norm, and yet the data to make such assessments is missing or polluted, the realist will conclude that breathing has, in itself, become dangerous, and apply the precautionary principle in daily life. I personally advocate a strategy of layered protection, in which masks — filtering shared air as they do — play an important part. Not all people, of course, are realists, but there are many who take share my views. Enough, in fact, to form a large market. In this post, I will argue that the way to reach this market is to transform masking into a social norm, as it is in Asia (which, in general, did far better saving lives during the Covid pandemic than did the West). Masking can become a social norm if masks become fashion items, but that can only happen if the mask industry adopts some standards.

A Mass Market for Masks Exists, Yet Without Demand Pull

Masks are highly functional. Besides protecting against Covid, they are likely to protect against unhealthy or lethal particles as follows:

PM2.5. PM2.5 pollution (think wildfires and dust from construction sites, among other sources) is increasing, driven by climate change, and is linked to mutations that cause lung cancer. Masks (even surgical masks) protect against PM2.5 particles.

Colds and Flu. “Mask use is well-documented for reducing respiratory viral spread…. The CDC estimates that so far this season, there have been at least 15 million illnesses, 150,000 hospitalizations, and 9,300 deaths from flu. Children are being hospitalized with RSV at higher rates than in previous years.”

Mold. Cordyceps as in The Last of Us aside, “If there is mold in your home (or you suspect that mold growth has occurred), protect your mouth and nose against breathing in mold by wearing at least a disposable, NIOSH-approved N-95 filtering facepiece respirator.”

The Next Respiratory Virus-driven Pandemic. “Together with recent estimates of increasing rates of disease emergence from animal reservoirs associated with environmental change, this finding suggests a high probability of observing pandemics similar to COVID-19 (probability of experiencing it in one’s lifetime currently about 38%), which may double in coming decades.” “‘Take [Covid] as an alert, a time to start being prepared for the next pandemic,’ [Margareth Dalcolmo, a member of Brazil’s National Academy of Medicine] said, ‘because we know respiratory viruses are going to increase.'”

As a sidebar, we might note that the anti-mask brigade, besides wanting to infect you with Covid, also wants to give you cancer, give your children RSV, have you breathe in black mold, and leave you unprepared for the next pandemic, which is most definitely coming[3]. These consequences are what anti-maskers call “Freedom.” End sidebar.

Given the functionality of masking, it’s unsurprising that a large market for them exists. From a 2023 survey by Monmouth:

I view these results optimistically. First, in spite of an enormous propaganda campaign, involving a lot of bullying, online and off, 50% of the population at least uses masks sometimes. That’s opportunity! Second, the usage patterns would seem to indicate that people are deciding when to mask and when not to. So for many, we need to improve protocols, not overcome resistance. Third, a hard core of 10% of the population — the 10% who are dedicated maskers — can have a big impact if organized. Finally, even 50% of the population is a big market. Market analysts agree:

“The disposable masks market is likely to record a [Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR)] of 7.4% during the forecast period. The market is expected to hold a market share of US$ 5.3 billion in 2023 while it is anticipated to cross a value of US$ 10.8 billion by 2033…. Rising awareness regarding airborne infections among consumers is spurring demand for disposable masks for personal use. The increasing incidence of viral outbreaks such as COVID-19 will propel the usage of disposable masks in the coming years…. Growing emphasis on personal safety and protection from airborne diseases and air pollution in the United States [listed above] is anticipated to create opportunities for growth in the coming years.”

And yet, despite masking’s functionality, and despite the market for masks, demand pull for masks — especially better masks — does not exist. Demand-pull “describes a supply chain where the trigger for supply is customer demand.” Operationally, venture capitalists recognize demand pull when a company puts a product on the market and consumers just can’t get enough of it; as I understand it, demand pull for a VC is a litmus test for another round of funding.

Clearly, demand pull (“can’t get enough”) is not happening for masks. (We can blame decades of neoliberal ideology and a well-funded campaign against masks by capital for this situation, but analyzing anti-mask propaganda is not the purpose of this post.) Stockpiling is proposed as a substitute for demand, but that didn’t work well in California, and in any case is no substitute for a functioning manufacturing base, because with the best will in the world, we can only guesstimate the size of the stockpile. Some demand might also be created by the desperate rearguard action — fought primarily, and entirely justifiably, by the disabled community — to re-institute universal masking in medical settings, but that is at best a partial solution.

In my view, the fundamental question is this: How do we create a world where masking is a social norm?

Masking Must Become a Social Norm

For whatever reasons — cultural differences, experience with SARS — masking is a social norm in (most of) Asia. I don’t know why those reasons aren’t at play in the United States — does half the population really want elders to die? — but clearly they are not. (I will note in passing that in the United States here is an enormous ferment at the DIY level for learning everything there is to know about how to protect one’s self with a mask, and also how to make them more, well, fun, but for whatever reason this ferment has not translated into demand pull, although perhaps it presages it. Many of exampes of mask DIY are documented in Water Cooler.)

My central proposition is this: Masks need to be reframed away from medical devices as fashion items. Kanye may be a head case, but he was onto something here (and let us remember he was at one point quite successful with his fashion lines):

(I don’t think I’d wear any of those particular masks, but I’d prefer something along those lines to a P100 (“Darth Vader”) masks. I’m not that committed to the bit, and my 3M Auras do the job. But it would be lovely to have mask that was actually pleasurable to wear.

Much as I disdain influencers, they’ve got the right idea here:


So how does any of this scale up? I think masks fall into two buckets: Disposable and elastomeric. (I’d like the elastomeric variety to win out, because I think the fit is intrinsically better.) Here are some elevator pitches for both:

Disposable. Work out how to produce N95 fabric in colors. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen wannabe fashionistas and Goths ask for masks in black — black goes with everything, after all[4]. But why stop there? Why aren’t there colorways for masks, so you can match your mask to your outfit? Why can’t N95 masks be screenprinted with something fun, instead of [checks mask] text like “3M Aura™ 9320A+ EN149:2001 FFP2 NR D CE 2797”? (3M is shoving me right into the medical box, exactly where I don’t want to be, as ill, as aberrant, as to be mocked and shunned.) Why can’t masks be embroidered, like shirt cuffs, with initials? Why don’t children’s masks come with stickers? Or cartoon characters? This DIYer has the right attitude:

Not what I would wear personally, but… something like cufflinks? Or an old-school tie?

Elastomeric. Elastomeric masks, by definition, have a frame, so any decorative device (see above) can be applied to them. However, I think elastomeric masks would be a good deal more, well, sexy if they were more high-tech. I can think of two technologies. First, a CO2 meter built into the frame. Right now, they’re rather large:

But given a level of effort, the meter could be miniaturized. The nice thing about that concept is that it self-documents the need for the mask (“Why are you wearing a mask?” “Just look. The CO2 level here is 3798, and only under 500 is safe”MR SUBLIMINAL And because you’re breathing on me. The mask would be Bluetooth enabled so you could get a readout from your phone; or you could hold the phone up to your face; or carry a small mirror.) Aranet’s idea of green, yellow, and red lights might also be used.

Second, a blood oxygen meter. For example:

Here, the watch would communicate, via Bluetooth, to the mask. What’s nice about this concept is that it enables others to help you if you are in trouble.

Properly designed, both these ideas would work as fashion. Both are technical in the way Nike “kicks” are technical, invite communication instead of — some say — repelling it, and frame the wearer as being hip and possessed of situational awareness (one definition of “hip,” after all).

(It just occurred to me that another readout could be “days to replace filter” (“No, I’m good, the filters at 29!”)

What Prevents Masking from Becoming a Social Norm?

We’ve already spoken of the enormous and partially succcessful propaganda campaign against masks, so I will skip that. I will also skip over the need to protect American manufacturers from Chinese competition, and how the Biden Administration — in combination with beancounters in the Infection Control Units of hospital monopolies, who experienced cheap Chinese masks as a form of jouissancenearly destroyed the American masking industry, even though — perhaps because? — many had entered the field at least partly driven by altruism. Instead, I will focus on two technical barriers to scaling: Lack of standards for sizing and fitting, and lack of interchangeable filters for elastomerics.

Sizing and fitting. I couldn’t even begin to aggregate the tweets I’ve seen on how to get a mask that properly fits (and fit, of course, is crucial for protection). There are whole threads, many of them. The industry has attempted to solve the problem with “sample packs,” or by offering masks in two or three different shapes, but these are clearly kludges. Masks should, at least, be as easy to fit as shoes[5], for which there are standards:

In an effort to develop a shoe size guide, the ‘Ritz Stick’ was invented around 1913, and patented in 1916. Featuring a flat wooden scale with a fixed heel stop and sliding toe stop, it is said to have been the first nationally recognised device for foot measurement in the USA. Manufactured by American Automatic Devices Co, the Ritz stick proved very popular during the early 1920s. In 1988 this device, which is still being manufactured today, was modified to include women’s sizing.

Not many years after the introduction of the Ritz Stick, New York-based inventor Charles Brannock reportedly spent two years developing a simple means of measuring the length, width, and arch length of the human foot. His first prototype was patented in the 1920s and he later formed the Brannock Device Company to manufacture and sell the product.

Here is the Brannock device:

What we need is a Brannock app on our digital devices — phones or tablets. You point the camera at your face, and the app spits out the standardized sizing (when a standard is developed). Perhaps some laid-off Silicon Valley programmer can figure this out; it would seem to fall out of facial recognition algorithms.

Interchangeable filters. Replaceable filters for elastomeric masks should be standardized and work like razor blades do:

In the early 1900s, an innovation by King Camp Gillette really put the safety razor on the map. Building on the design of the Kampfe brothers, Gillette created a razor with two cutting edges (double-edge shaving!) and perhaps more importantly, he used growing technology to create extremely thin razor blades that could be disposed of and replaced inexpensively.

The blade design:

Which enables an entire industry:

I know the concept is to give away the razor and make your money on the blades, and, if possible, to lock your customer into a proprietary blade design, and I think that thought goes through every elastomeric manufacturer’s mind, or at least their marketing department’s. Business is business! However, as a potential customer, the sizing doubts and filter doubts reinforce each other; am I going to buy a mask that doesn’t fit and be stuck with the filters too? And even if the masks fit, will I be gouged on the filters later (the business model says I will), and will the manufacturer exist? The model is wrong. Make the filters interchangeable, and compete on the frame; the fit, the feel, the look, the embedded devices. Make the filters a commodity, and make the elastomeric mask a fashion item, and consumers will end up buying several masks for different occasions. The whole field will grow.


These are my thoughts on making masking universal by turning masks into a fashion item, enabling masks to become a social norm. That efforts depends on sizing and fit standards, and standards for interchangeable filters. There is a trade association, the American Mask Manufacturers Association. Trade associations write standards. AMMA, get to it. You’ve got ’til the next pandemic. If you do, I can go long masks!


[1] There is rough hierarchy of masks according to the seal they create, starting with “Baggy Blues”, (surgical masks), through ear-loop respirators (KN95), headstrap respirators (N95, ideally fit-tested), and ending with full-on Darth Vader masks. (I’m eliding N95 and KN95 because the market has so confused them; there also many international standards). Protection should, of course, be layered, masks forming one layer.) Yes, Covid is the disease, SARS-CoV-2 is the virus. Then again, HCWs themselves say “COVID filled room” so there’s no point being tediously literal-minded.

[2] For a famous takedown of so-called Evidence-Based Medicine’s RCT (Randomized Controlled Trial) fetish, see “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial.” Sadly, as yet no Hospital Infection Control goons have volunteered to be the controls in such a study. But I live in hope!

[3] Nothing wrong with a little shaming. None of the cool kids wear “Baggy Blues”:

[4] Why isn’t there a Chanel(-licensed) “little black mask?”

[5] The story of shoe size standards is a lot more complicated and interesting than this brief quote shows. Shoes were measured in “barleycorns,” there are different national standards, children’s sizes, manufacturers gaming the sizing for competitive advantage; the usual standards fare.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Klärchen

    I recently happened upon this Youtube channel. Lloyd Armbrust has been testing the filtration properties of seemingly every mask on the planet for a few years now on his channel. He has enthusiastically approved of my two favorite N95s, the 3M 9205+ Aura and the Gerson Extreme Comfort 3230.

    He does not, however, seem to give much consideration to issues of correct fitting. He has stated his intention to take his company, Armbrust, into the future by now designing its own masks, none of which I have examined yet.

    This is his latest video:


  2. Mark Andrew


    Thank you for continuing to make Naked Capitalism the best source of COVID-related information.

    I’ve been using the Airgami mask for nearly 2 years. It’s N95 and took first place in a government sponsored mask competition. I greatly appreciate its customization: ear loops or behind the head bands; the sides can be adjusted for better fit, and the masks are sized S to XL based on face measurements.

    The masks are expensive; plain white is $24. However, I get 4-6 months out of a mask. They do not lay flat and I keep them in a box when not wearing. I can easily talk without the mask shifting on my face.

    Style is also addressed. For a few bucks more the outer structural layer comes in various colors and patterns.

    Continue to wear masks! Except for an early Saturday morning coffee meet-up with a few good friends for sanity, I wear my mask everywhere when I’m out. I made an exception 2 weeks ago, attending a small graduation party. Three days later I tested positive! Thankfully it was mild and I was negative 6 days later; however, I was unable to attend my oldest son’s uni graduation, and missed most of the time with my 80-yr parents that were visiting. My Mother’s Day involvement was sitting on a deck with a TV tray, watching family through a sliding glass door. Even if you avoid acute or chronic issues (for how long?), COVID will still take a toll.

    My wife and youngest son stayed infection free with a CR box running in the house and windows cracked, and me isolating. Regardless of US trade restrictions, Canadian forest byproducts are drifting across to MT in [family blog] May! Filtration- come for the COVID, stay for the fires.

  3. megrim

    Elastomeric filters last for a long time, so I don’t have a problem with having to buy proprietary. The filters actually work better the longer you use them, as the gruk you aren’t inhaling creates more of a barrier, keeping the gruk out even better. You use the filters until it becomes difficult to breath in. I also have a Flo Mask, and their filters cost about $1 and last for 40 hours each. I find that elastomerics are much much easier for me to use. I get a good seal 100% of the time.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > I also have a Flo Mask,

      More people should have multiple masks, depending on the occasion, exactly as they have different clothes for every occasion.

  4. JustAnotherVolunteer

    I’ve been ordering the fancy kn95 masks from MaskLab (found via the NC comments a while ago) and using them as party favors, throw ins with gifts, and “going away” presents. No one turns them down because they’re really pretty. Most folks wouldn’t pay extra for the Tiger Lily or Lotus prints but they’re delighted to have them. A lot of folks I know don’t mask all the time anymore but most will in crowded situations or by request. It’s nice to be able to add a little low cost encouragement.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > I’ve been ordering the fancy kn95 masks from MaskLab (found via the NC comments a while ago) and using them as party favors

      What a great idea. And I’m glad there are mask prints. There should be more!

  5. Bart Hansen

    Many a Brannock device was used on me at shoe stores back in my youth. But at some point in my spent youth they were no longer used and now my two big toes are partially resting atop their neighbors. I’m not crippled but I urge young folks to get shod correctly as you, inshallah, will need to use your feets for many years.

  6. Zen

    I appreciate the continuing info on covid especially as a way to pay attention to the moral economy of “truth” surrounding it. It is also crucial for everyone to make an informed decision regarding the issue, which had been so obscured in the information space of US/Europe societies.

    However, I can’t say I agree with the masking ethos: it is certainly effective in preventing air-born diseases and pollution, but from my point of view this rationale does not outweight the comfort and ease of not wearing a mask, enabling a more personal, expressive communication with others or simply a feel of fresh air under my nose. It may be irrational from the point of view of increased danger and potentially lower lifespan, but it makes day to day life much more joyful.

    What I do find quite important and that’s common in countries that experienced SARS is the choice to put on a mask when one has respiratory symptoms of a disease and thereby decides to protect others from getting sick. I understand this might work better in some societies than others…

    1. Yves Smith

      No, it is not the experience of SARS. Japan had almost no SARS and has long considered masking to be polite. Thailand is famously the Land of Smiles, yet Thais have no issues with masking.

      It happens to be the Western men (who have Thai wives and girlfriends) who press them not to mask. Lower levels of masking in Thailand takes place in tourist cities compared to Bangkok.

      I associate the keen interest in seeing others smile as mainly about dominance and expecting others to do emotional labor for you. As a woman, I am aware of the expectation that I smile, and the discomfort I create by not delivering it. Service people are also expected to smile to confirm their subservient position relative to the customer.

      1. Sergey P

        Oh wow. Sorry I drifted off the masks thing. But smile as subservience-signalling is a new concept for me, yet feels true. Could it be one of the reasons Russians are famous for not really smiling all that much? The common interpretation is that they lack polite smiles, only smiling when they FEEL IT. But maybe it’s also because they just haven’t yet learned that if they smile and provide sweet dominance to others — they can rip em off more easily.

        NC is a treasure that keeps on treasuring!

        1. Jams O'Donnell

          One other positive for mass wearing is the (presumed) difficulty posed to face recognition cameras when on a demo, or even when just getting on with your life. But in order not to cause yet another environmental problem, all masks will have to be easily recycled.

          1. Lambert Strether Post author

            What a shame facial recognition would be impeded. (Actually, I don’t think it will, sadly. First, it’s also possible to identify people with gait; with the entire body, not just the face. Second, China is a highly-surveilled society. If masking had gotten in the way of that, I doubt China would have gone the masking route.)

            On recycling: One more reason we need to move toward elastomerics (and also disposable masks using biodegradable fabrics, which the marketing link discusses, though I cut that part).

      2. Acacia

        Over the past months, unfortunately, I’ve noticed something similar in Tokyo.

        As Japan has lifted pretty much all travel restrictions and re-opened, there’s been a yuge influx of tourists, with visitors ramping up from around 170k/month last August, to 1.5m/month in January 2023 (this, according to JTB Tourism Research & Consulting Co.).

        The Japanese govt started a back-to-business campaign to persuade people to unmask outdoors, and already last fall the news was running articles with titles like “Why is Japan unable or unwilling to unmask?”, but I didn’t see any changes in masking practices in public spaces until just recently. People would unmask in restaurants to eat, but on the street and on trains the masks went back on. Meanwhile, I can’t help but notice that over 90% of the tourists in the streets of Tokyo are unmasked now, and the general vibe is that this has worked like a subtle form of social pressure, such that more and more Japanese seem to think: “well… why not?” Staff in restaurants that I saw masked three weeks ago, are now maskless, with professionally designed “MASK FREE” signs posted inside the washroom explaining that masking is now considered a “personal choice” for customers and staff.

        Masking has thus noticeably dropped off on the streets and in the trains around the central parts of Tokyo. By contrast, on the suburban commuter trains and in the smaller satellite cities, where there are fewer tourists, I notice more ‘usual’ masking. For this reason, I tend to think the change of attitude w.r.t. masks could have a lot to do with the influx of large numbers of “no-masuku gaijin” than the govt policies. Of course subjective and anecdotal, but that’s my impression.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > I tend to think the change of attitude w.r.t. masks could have a lot to do with the influx of large numbers of “no-masuku gaijin” than the govt policies.

          I have tended to resist “pollution by Western ideas” tropes, but in this case I think it’s justified. In the most, I listed all the other reasons to wear masks besides Covid. The dominant Western mask culture — i.e., “Let’s not” is reckless and morally indefensible. (I’m tired of being nice about this. It’s as if, in ancient Rome, people were parading around with “Eat More Lead!” signs.)

          1. Zen

            I’ll pitch in here with a comment on why the ethics are not so clear cut (I replied also below to your comments, but perhaps it hasn’t gone through).

            Showing a full face establishes an ethical connection with other people, a sense of responsibility and care towards the other. Paradoxically, it is precisely with wearing a mask that one shows such care in a situation of a biohazard. However, this does have a big ethical downside, since it makes it much more difficult to see the other not merely as an abstract human figure, but an individual, to whom we ought to relate to not merely through the ethics of health but also of well-being, interest and love.

            For instance: this article on Levinasian ethics explores more in depth the ethical issues in mask-wearing, while acknowledging the obvious ethical upsides. https://lawliberty.org/masking-humanity-emmanuel-levinas-and-the-pandemic/

            Or perhaps: https://philosophynow.org/issues/151/Levinas_and_Post-Pandemic_Masking

            In other words, you don’t need to have an egoistic normative stance to claim that showing your face to the public is ethically good.

            The counterargument to the above is that the levinasian position is sufficiently achieved through eyes alone, explored in some other literature on the topic. Maybe…

            1. Lambert Strether Post author

              > Showing a full face establishes an ethical connection with other people,

              This is bullshit in pure form. You’re saying that half the world, Asia, where masking is normative or at least prevalent, isn’t capable of ethical connection. That’s codswallop. (Perhaps they aren’t believers in the concept that “the right to infect others shall not be infringed.” Good for them, say I, underlining “good.”)

              It’s also a real steaming load to claim that masks hide the face, because — follow me closely, here — the eyes are part of the face.

              Liberty Fund is an especially noxious libertarian organ, as I would expect. GTFO.

      3. Zen

        Hm, clearly it would be a reductive argument to claim that smiling is all about power-relations. Presumably, the critique of the male gaze is meant to liberate minds, rather than censor certain ways of representing women, which have through their ubiquity resulted in the internalisation of the gaze. Similarly here, I agree, you can reasonably critique the marketing motivation that encourages “smiling” to improve sales (by not wearing masks), but obviously smiling can’t be reduced to that framework… even in a coffee shop situation, while the social roles we play might pressure us through their logic, we are (hopefully) not subsumed by those roles.

        1. Yves Smith

          Straw manning me is not on. I never said any such thing.

          But one can hazard that you’re not a woman, or in sales, or a retail store manager. And you didn’t deign to find independent support for your doubling down, which is also part of the house rules here. This is basically sneering.

          Smiling is pre-rational, pre-verbal behavior. What basis do you have for asserting we would try or find it advantageous to encourage the friction that goes with bucking social conditioning? I do because I did get counter-cultural conditioning at home, as in extreme undersmilers as parents, and so came to recognize the inculcation early, and I have chosen not to adapt to common norms because I enjoy assuming a quiet position of dominance, as I came to recognize both my parents did. But that comes at the cost of not being liked.

          And as for power relations, try not smiling for a week to your bosses and see how that goes.

          Women smile a LOT more than men (one study found an average of 52 times a day v. 8 for men) but that difference goes away in workplaces among men and women in similar status positions: Women smile more than men, but differences disappear when they are in the same role, Yale researcher finds.

          Laughter in meetings has been found to be another sign of who is dominant. See for instance:

          Subordinates may laugh to appease superiors, while superiors may withhold laughter to maintain status.


          1. Zen

            I’m saddened that my comment had come across as a straw man: I basically acknowledged your argument that by looking at human behaviour (smiling in connection with masking) in terms of power-relations is useful. Depending on the social agent and the context, smiling can be related to many degrees of power and powerlessness. In the case of powerlessness, the inequality in gender and societal roles are especially important to highlight as you have.

            Nonetheless, in the case of social agents, who feel empowered, smiling behaviour is correlated with emotional changes or what has been described as a “facial feedback hypothesis,” which indicates that the behaviour of smiling can also be the cause of feeling emotionally better (ref. 1., 2.). Since smiling is often “contagious” (ref. 3), I would argue smiling and its visibility should be something socially desirable. Finally, it might be interesting to consider the health benefits of smiling and perhaps also longevity (ref. 4, 5).

            Nonetheless, I do think it is crucial to emphasise power-relations and point out the crises in today’s moral economy of trust, where knowledge produced by institutions is questioned (and that’s why I deeply appreciate the work that you do here).

            On a personal note, I did work in the service industry and the expectation to smile was sometimes annoying. However, I also often experienced quite a lot of joy in smiling during interpersonal interaction, despite my knowledge of being underpayed. Fortunately, I was not working in a “culture,” where the demands on the service would be high, which perhaps opened up the possibility of more authentic smiles.

            1. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/01461672982412007?casa_token=plC6QjdPSWQAAAAA:K8_JTja0XDpyjafLMFMRBMfCOrQDd1lSttBQgr_jFYw9xmpHum6v8z-G1gZ7YA2FvNwTpFfdp68S4g
            2. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/bul-bul0000194.pdf
            3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4445583/ (under section “To Act, or Not to Act”)
            4. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17437199.2022.2052740
            5. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0956797610363775?casa_token=NDdfpoYxWGAAAAAA:on3feuoNmnyglJMH9iDnvveMLvcoxU6J3h4GVQGCS5n06EeUxRksH-PW4hVqdvq37d8M1rx_EApX

            1. Lambert Strether Post author

              The assumption here is that people cannot smile — or communicate trust — with their eyes alone. That’s obviously false (though I can see why anti-maskers would have difficulty looking anyone in the eye :-) To put this another way, are we really arguing that hospitals in Asia have a higher death rate when the culture is a masking culture?

            2. Lambert Strether Post author

              As for the references, which I am glad are provided:

              1. From the Abstract: “Results are interpreted as reflecting the license given to high-power people to smile when they are so inclined and the obligation for low-power people to smile regardless of how positive they feel.” I don’t see how that correlates with feeling “emotionally better,” in fact the reverse. In fact, one would think on these grounds that “progressives would support masking as empowering.

              2. From the Abstract: “The available evidence supports the facial feedback hypothesis’ central claim that facial feedback influences emotional experience, although these effects tend to be small and heterogeneous.” Putting “small and heterogenous” — i.e., of lesser importance than breaking an airborne Level 3 Biohazard in or out — to one side, “facial feedback” completely confounds face and eyes. So this study does not support your claim.

              3. The study on emotional contagion, while it does discuss smiling, does not rule out smiling with the eyes as contagious, so again the study does not support your claim. Further: ” As long as you keep your face in a smile or laugh, feeling an incongruent emotion is nearly impossible.” There’s no such thing as a fake smile? Really?

              4. I can’t get at the complete study, only the abstract. Once again, eyes and mouth are confounded (that is, a masked smile with eyes is not distinguished from an unmasked smile) so the putative “health benefits” (absent for Asian masking cultures? Really?) are unproven. Further: “[T]he findings from both naturally occurring smile studies and experimentally manipulated smile studies consistently suggest that smiling may have a number of health-relevant benefits including beneficially impacting our physiology during acute stress, improved stress recovery, and reduced illness over time.” Unless in fact power relations are the dominant use case for public smiles, I have no idea how “experimentally manipulated smile studies” could be relevant. Shouldn’t the whole point of smiling be sincerity and genuine-ness, not manipulation?

              5. Again, I can’t get at the full article, but the idea of inferring longevity from photographs (of baseball players) seems to me absurd. I mean, we’re not taking factors like, say, income into account?

        2. Lambert Strether Post author

          > Hm, clearly it would be a reductive argument to claim that smiling is all about power-relations.

          Let’s not be sentimental. I think in any business setting — most especially medical settings — power relations are certainly the most prominent use case. And most of our public settings are business, one way or another. Intimate setting — which for me includes eating together, when not for work purposes — are another matter, but not in scope for this post.

          1. Zen

            My point is simply that things cannot be separated that neatly and recommended as a moral standard. People do not necessarily value health above enjoyment/comfort, even when they recognise certain behaviour as potentially dangerous. That does not mean it is not reasonable to wear masks. Clearly, the security of wearing a mask outweighs any potential health benefits of smiling, which is especially true for the hospital context, however, the same standard of evaluation (health) is perhaps not so meaningful (to many) in other contexts. If I may presume, for you it is still meaningfully applied in most public/business settings, but not in private/intimate settings. I respect that choice. However, while the conceptual distinction between public and private can help us draw certain ethical conclusions, it is also just that: an intellectual instrument — a way of seeing —applied to various situations, which are most often much more ambiguous.

            During the various odd jobs that I’ve had, I’ve tended to befriend both colleagues and customers, where the relationship was certainly both public and private. Perhaps, more controversially, I’ve sometimes also “befriended” people on public transportation or while hitchhiking, usually as a result of an eye contact and smiling. I’m not saying that masking would necessarily prevent that, though it might impede it, but I am claiming that for me the health concerns are not the primary ethical standard with which I’m evaluating that (public, potentially private) situation. Conversely, health concerns might become the primary standard of evaluating that situation, if I was sick or someone else had visible respiratory symptoms.

            1. Yves Smith

              All of this cool-headed talk skirts the point: YOU NOT WEARING A MASK PUTS OTHERS AT RISK. This is not about YOUR health risk, it is your acts imposing costs on others.

              The US went through this calculus with second-hand smoke and over time moved to pretty much total banning of smoking in public indoor places. Tell me ethically how this is any different? It has been documented that a mere 27 seconds of exposure on an elevator as well as fleeting outdoor exposure has led to Covid cases.

              With Covid, asymptomatic cases are estimated at as high as half of symptomatic cases, and they are as contagious, so your looking for symptoms standard is dangerously flawed. On top of that, even with symptomatic case, the period of peak viral shedding straddles symptom onset.

              1. Verifyfirst

                I have been exploding PMC heads in my circle by asking them to join me in my new campaign to bring back indoor smoking. Cuz why not–second hand smoke is not more deadly than Covid. As Trump’s Surgeon General continues to say (paraphrase): People ask me why I continue to talk about Covid. It’s because if we don’t, what we are really saying is we don’t care about human life.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > a more personal, expressive communication with others

      The nice thing about communicating with eyes is that it’s much harder to lie with them; that’s not the case with smiles at all. One cannot help but think that the more vociferous smile advocates — hospital administrators and such-like — find that masks cramp their style for that reason.

      I’m all for smiles as a private matter between intimates. I think many public smiles are fake, and nearly all smiles between superiors and subordinates — that is, between the PMC and others — are about the accumulation of social capital, hence fake, and that we’re well rid of them. Presumably the PMC, in a situation where masking was a social norm, would need to invent some other signal for submission; prostration, perhaps?

      1. JBird4049

        The problem with masking is just that. When everything is fine, it is not a problem, but half the time there is. Masking the lips and all the little movements below the eyes, which are extremely useful when you can’t hear with a aid not working well, or there is a noisy environment, or even someone who just can’t speak well. All this means is that half of the time I have difficulty communicating and without the mask, it goes away much of that time. I know that this must cause problems for many people.

        Maybe someone could create a mask that would not do this? While wishing for that, what about a port for a straw?

        On the safety razors, despite the standardization of blade size, there are still tiny differences in size between the different brands of blades and the different makers of the razors themselves. A person can easily tell especially if they compare different blades. This means that finding the right combination blade and razor can require trying several different blades before you stop getting bad shaves or things like razor burn over half a face. There was a list created by a shaving aficionado that listed the right combinations, but I lost, and can’t find it online again.

        Of course, some of those brands of razor blades have since been bought out by investors who consolidated production by getting rid of the factories for one brand over another. I have had to switch again to different brands. It is not that people were not willing to pay for their favor brand of razor blade especially if it was compatible with the razor’s head itself. It was more profitable to shut down production from previously different companies with not only the differences in sizes, but with the poorer quality brand being kept or it’s crapified.

        Beer makers, book publishers, razor manufacturers have all been consolidated usually with a cheapening of quality as well by these blasted investors who buy out companies, strip everything of value, and leave a nearly dead manufacturer in place of several good ones if we are very lucky. Not the most important thing is shaving, but it is a reminder of the slow degradation of everything.

        1. Sinyangwe

          There was a list created by a shaving aficionado that listed the right combinations, but I lost, and can’t find it online again.

          Let me know when you find it again.

        2. t

          “I know that this must cause problems for many people.”
          How do you know and what is “many”?

          Public policy and public behavior is the issue here. Not inconvenience for a few.

          1. JBird4049

            “I know that this must cause problems for many people.”
            How do you know and what is “many”?

            Public policy and public behavior is the issue here. Not inconvenience for a few.

            Good grief. How insensitive. Close to thirty million Americans have some hearing loss, and this is not talking about the rest of the planet. Not being able to have a conversation with any person is not some inconvenience. Try taking a class, talking with a clerk or a nurse. Hoping for a solution for this is not unreasonable.

            1. Verifyfirst

              There are several masks on the market with clear fronts, so the mouth can be seen–some were developed for teachers. The clear one that I have (I have a LOT of different masks) is here: omnimask.com. I like it, it gives me a good seal.

              There is also a straw on the market that you can seal/install on/thru an N 95 type mask–I have not tried it, but I might if I had a need. I lost my Twitter bookmarks when Twitter banned me a couple months ago for….reading twitter, or I would give you the link. Twitter has never responded to my appeal.

        3. lambert strether

          So accommodate those with hearing issues case by case. I said social norm, not law or regulation.

      2. davejustdave

        I watch a fair number of East Asian and South Asian tv shows, and note that various intensities of nodding, bowing, feet touching, and gaze avoidance, as well as prostration, are well established postural means for acknowledging superior social status.

  7. Sinyangwe

    I don’t know a lot about all the masks on the market but for me the most uncomfortable thing about masking is that the water in your breath stays within the mask.

    1. Verifyfirst

      You can get an elastomeric mask with an exhalation valve—this will not protect others from you, but you will still be protected from them. I wouldn’t wear it around anyone I cared about, but for the general, unmasked public? I’ve been thinking about it.

  8. Lambert Strether Post author

    Public Service Announcement:

    A hardy perennial talking point for anti-maskers is that the holes in mask fabric* are large enough for viruses to slip through, making masks useless. This talking point, unsurprisingly, is a superficially plausible con that plays on lack of study:

    The fibers in regular cloth or paper face masks filter out particles by physically blocking them—but the fibers in an N95 mask also use a great physics trick. These fibers are electrically charged….

    [With an N95 fiber] the fibers in the mask are created from an “electret” material; this word comes from combining electric and magnet. No, it’s not an electromagnet—it is a permanently electrically charged object, just in the way that a bar magnet on your fridge is.

    [T]he electret fibers in an N95 mask not only block small particles by getting in the way, they can also attract them with the electric interaction, so they get stuck to the fibers. This means that those water [aerosol] droplets carrying a virus don’t get inhaled, and the mask wearer won’t be infected. Of course, an N95 also blocks other small particles, like dust, paint, and other toxic stuff that might not be great for a person to inhale into their body.

    So the key point is not the weave of the fabric — the size of the holes that anti-maskers complain of — but the charge.

    Note also the mention of “dust” and “paint.” Because the mental horizon of your typical anti-masker only goes back to 2019, and their mental “visual field” is narrowly focused on Covid — why, it’s almost as if their arguments are 100% tendentious — the fact masks with electret fabrics have been used successfully in industrial settings for many years eludes them.

    NOTE *N95 fabric or elastomeric filters, not mere cloth.

    1. Basil Pesto

      Note also the mention of “dust” and “paint.” Because the mental horizon of your typical anti-masker only goes back to 2019, and their mental “visual field” is narrowly focused on Covid — why, it’s almost as if their arguments are 100% tendentious — the fact masks with electret fabrics have been used successfully in industrial settings for many years eludes them.

      Yeah this is the really weird (because it’s obviously dumb) part of the argument of anti-masker conspiracy theorists: that these things are some kind of grift that have been waiting in the wings for decades before they had their time to shine in 2020, when they (and the rest of the lay-public) began to be interested.

  9. Lambert Strether Post author

    The central thesis of the post — “Masking can become a social norm if masks become fashion items, but that can only happen if the mask industry adopts some standards” — stands unrefuted, which is interesting….

  10. Irrational

    Face mask bingo: Sadly I believe we have seen all of those at one point or another with the exception of the one in the middle of the top row. I guess that gets a point for novelty!

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