Still, trying to shame people into healthier behavior generally doesn’t work—and actually can make things worse.
Public-health professionals have learned this lesson before. In 1987, Congress banned the use of federal funds for HIV-prevention campaigns that might “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.” As a result, public-health campaigns avoided sex-positive imagery and messaging, and instead associated condom use with virtue and condomless sex with irresponsibility, disease, and death. According to one particularly foreboding poster, which featured an image of a gravestone: “A bad reputation isn’t all you can get from sleeping around.” But those moralistic, fear-mongering health messages often fell flat. Other HIV-prevention campaigns began to adopt a harm-reduction approach, which empathizes with people’s basic human needs and offers them strategies to limit potential dangers. For some men, condoms got in the way of what they valued most about sex: pleasure and intimacy. Not surprisingly, HIV-prevention campaigns that put pleasure and intimacy at the center of their safer-sex messaging tended to work.
Summoning compassion for people who have a hard time wearing masks, or even the people who flat-out object to them, isn’t such a tall order. Many Americans genuinely want to keep their community safe, and recognize that masks reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. But just like the well-intended condom on the nightstand that never makes it out of its wrapper, some masks don’t make it onto someone’s face—often for relatable reasons. And while ideologues who entirely eschew masks will be less persuadable, people who support the use of masks may find shared ground with them. Lamenting the way that masks impede social interactions with the cashiers ringing up his groceries, Huff says, “I love to make people like that smile and laugh and have a great conversation. You couldn’t even see the wrinkles in their eyes with their smiles. They looked so beat-down and run-down.”
Let’s be real: Americans are beat-down and run-down after months of loss and social isolation. Masks do keep people from seeing facial expressions and hearing voices clearly, both vital elements of social connection. Masks don’t deprive people of oxygen, but they do make it harder to breathe freely. They fog up people’s glasses. They make noses itch and faces sweat. Many masks feel decidedly uncool. They are yet another thing to remember when walking out the front door. And, most of all, masks are a constant reminder of what Americans so desperately want to forget: that despite all of our sacrifices, the pandemic hasn’t gone anywhere.
Empathy has its own kind of power. Acknowledging what people dislike about a public-health strategy enables a connection with them rather than alienating them further. And when the barriers are understood, they become addressable. When it became clear that people needed better condoms, companies began making them in all different shapes, sizes, and styles—ribbed, studded, impossibly thin, even glow-in-the-dark—to improve comfort, sensation, and people’s sense of individuality. Likewise, the government needs to support businesses in developing masks that are not only effective, but also fit well and feel good. People need a range of options, including face shields, that can help meet their personal needs and preferences. And people need face coverings that make them feel stylish, cool, and—yes—even manly.