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Commentary: Wear your mask properly! Uncovering the reasons behind public mask shaming

Singapore has a tight culture where people expect rules to be followed but it’s worth remembering that wearing our masks is the least we can do to show we care for each other, says SUSS’ Brandon Koh.

Commentary: Wear your mask properly! Uncovering the reasons behind public mask shaming

People wearing face masks at East Coast Park on Jul 19, 2020. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

SINGAPORE: As the pandemic drags on, and lives are impacted, our society has shared many negative emotions including fear and sadness. Recently, anger appears to be on the rise.

One particular group – unmasked joggers – seem to be bearing the brunt of others’ anger. A rife of public shaming and aggression directed towards joggers have become prevalent in news reports, social media and the streets. 

This finger wagging is happening worldwide and has also been extended to those who do not wear their masks correctly.

Psychology has shown there may be deeper reasons behind people’s anger, of which a better appreciation can help unify us in our battle against COVID-19.

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In every society, there are social norms – rules or expectations about how people should behave. These expectations stem from cultural practices and the law.

Although we rarely think about them, our everyday behaviours are constantly influenced by social norms. You would not think to walk barefoot in a mall but the same behaviour is fairly common in New Zealand.

However, not all cultures enforce social norms equally. In psychology, a concept called cultural tightness reflects how strictly groups abide by social norms.

Tight cultures expect their members to follow norms closely and often punish violators. Loose cultures permit and tolerate deviant behaviours.

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In fact, Singapore is the classic example of a tight culture that metes out fines for chewing gum and not flushing public toilets. Norm-violating behaviours are also regularly shamed on various online forums and Facebook groups.

There are important trade-offs for leaning towards tight or loose orientations. 

Famed University of Maryland psychologist Michele Gelfand first validated the concept with a 33-country study and found that tighter cultures enjoy law and order with low crime rates. People also show more uniformity in their dressing, keep to schedules, and exercise more self-control in eating, drinking alcohol, and managing debt.

In contrast, while loose cultures are less orderly, they shine in openness. In loose cultures, like in New Zealand and the Netherlands, people are more helpful towards those from stigmatised groups. They also excel in creativity, innovation, and advocating social change.

Students wearing face masks stand for the national anthem in class at Yio Chu Kang Secondary School, as schools reopen amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore June 2, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Edgar Su)

But what makes a culture tighter? Are we not one human race bound by a common psychology?

Professor Gelfand’s analysis found that tight cultures historically face more threats. These threats can be natural or human-caused, including diseases, famine, disasters, war and riots.

Tight cultures also have higher population density. As such, cultural tightness may have evolved to facilitate the coordination required for these societies to thrive.

Unsurprisingly, where COVID-19 is a threat amplified by population density, it’s no wonder Singapore’s culturally tight stance has intensified.


Why are people in tight cultures prone to getting angry about whether and how others wear their masks?

Members of tight cultures expect one another to follow social norms and may see themselves as informal agents who must reinforce these norms. Already, the application of anger and shame to maintain norms is prevalent across many longstanding, undesired acts like crime and racism.

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That said, might it be that people’s anger could be blown out of proportion when they treat issues of mask-wearing like an immoral act?

Let’s face it. COVID-19 has cost people their freedom, jobs, or even their loved ones. Although wearing masks is just one small hassle in the big picture, it is an immediate reminder of the negative impacts of this pandemic.

People in a tight culture may also come to view whether someone wears their masks properly as a reflection of whether they take their social responsibilities seriously.

There is an upside to this problem. People are more likely to wear masks properly to avoid the anger of others rather than for its physical functions.

On the downside, disharmony is the last thing society needs right now. Perhaps it is worth recognising that mask-related anger towards joggers and others may be well-intended.

People wearing face masks at East Coast Park on Jul 19, 2020. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

As we battle COVID-19 together, we naturally expect others to at least publicly comply with the regulations, even if they may privately dislike it.

Here, it is important to acknowledge the resistance against wearing masks properly. Some find it difficult to breathe, while others question its effectiveness.

Funny enough, some netizens have even suggested leaving home in sportswear and pretending to jog if one is caught. It is clear the discomfort of masks and the strain of having to obey social norms are taking a toll.


If this all sounds rather discouraging to you, bear in mind wearing our masks properly remain a vital important part of the COVID-19 fight in three ways.

First, we must recognise that being careless about mask-wearing can influence others around us to do the same.

People may recall the wave of irrational hoarding of toilet paper and instant noodles that accompanied the COVID-19 outbreak. To psychologists, these behaviours were unsurprising. They resemble a phenomenon called group polarisation, where decisions made by groups often sway towards extremes.

In classic experiments, people were first asked about their opinions on an issue. After a group discussion, their opinions often sway towards the extreme.

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This sway can be towards cautious or risky extremes. At the beginning, people feared the coronavirus. Once groups of people share this sentiment, they responded with extreme caution, hoarding food and supplies.

Now that community cases have declined substantially, some groups may sway towards risky extreme, thinking it is safer and they can relax on obeying the rules, which has also involved private gathering limits.

Importantly, our actions shape the behaviours of those around us, and sometimes, to the wrong extreme. We should avoid evaluating the risks ourselves and follow the national regulations that have been carefully and methodically decided upon.

Second, we can appreciate the psychological value of wearing masks.

People with masks on walking along the Singapore River on July 17, 2020. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

More than just containing our droplets, and protecting our noses and mouths, masks serve as reminders not to touch our faces. The discomfort masks cause also deters us from leaving our homes unnecessarily.

These psychological forces behind mask-wearing are important and effective ways of reducing infections that people often overlook.

Finally, wearing masks may also symbolise our collective fight against COVID-19.

In research together with Singapore Management University’s Associate Professor Angela Leung, we found that providing hard facts rarely motivate social behaviours.

People do not change their behaviours to become more environmentally friendly merely because of logical arguments. Rather, people were more willing to go green when it symbolised a benevolent act of caring for the human race.

The recent global social media campaigns with nurses pleading “We’ll stay here for you, please stay home for us” struck a chord even here in Singapore when a Facebook post of Tan Tock Seng Hospital frontline healthcare workers holding up signs saying so went viral. It makes clear that people are doing their part by staying home, not just against COVID-19, but also for each other.

As we wear our masks, we not only protect ourselves but also gesture our commitment to care about one another as a society.

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Dr Brandon Koh is an Industrial-Organisational Psychologist and Lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Source: CNA/sl


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