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How Wearing Masks Became Normalized in Certain Cultures

Woman boarding an airplane in China, wearing a face mask.

Ever wonder why wearing face masks is perfectly normal in some cultures, while others resist doing so, even when it’s the smart, safe choice? Here’s what you should know.

Worldwide, cultural differences are influencing how countries respond to the coronavirus. Mask-wearing is one of the most obvious examples. In many Asian countries, wearing masks in public has been the norm for many years, so citizens quickly donned theirs at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, in the U.S., some people are reluctant to wear masks, even though it will keep them safer.

Culture and history both contribute largely to these differences. Here’s why masks are normalized in some cultures and stigmatized in others.

Why Many Asian Cultures Don’t Hesitate to Wear Masks

COVID-19 isn’t the first coronavirus illness to threaten the lives of millions; it’s just the first to become a pandemic.

In 2003, there was an outbreak of a viral respiratory illness called SARS. Like COVID-19, SARS was caused by a coronavirus. Also like COVID-19, it was initially reported in Asia.

While SARS also spread to other continents, it primarily affected Asia, and was contained before becoming a full-blown global pandemic. Another illness caused by a type of coronavirus, MERS, was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. However, the biggest MERS outbreak that wasn’t on the Arabian Peninsula happened in Korea. Bird flu also affected many parts of Asia around 2006.

Both SARS and MERS spread similarly to COVID-19, and masks were one way to reduce transmission. So, people in Asian countries were heavily impacted by these illnesses and quickly learned the value of wearing masks.

However, even before those outbreaks, cultural norms promoted mask-wearing in many Asian countries. Openly sneezing or coughing is considered rude in parts of East Asia, so many people wear masks just for allergy season. High pollution in some Asian cities is another reason people there often wear masks.

Others might wear masks for non-health reasons. In Japan, some people wear masks to keep their faces warm in winter or discourage strangers from striking up an unwanted conversation.

Plus, in some parts of Asia, mask-wearing actually has cultural roots stretching far back into history. For example, in China, wearing a mask during a public-health crisis was first normalized during the 1910 pneumonic plague outbreak.

Of course, there are vast differences between Asian cultures, and masks aren’t normalized equally among all of them. However, these historic and cultural factors explain why many Asian people didn’t hesitate to wear masks as COVID-19 started to spread.

Why Western Cultures Often Resist Masks

Woman wearing mask while grocery shopping.
Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock

The more people wear masks, the more normalized they become. This leads to even more people masking up in a given area. If you don’t see anyone else in a mask, you might feel weird wearing one. However, if most of the people around you are wearing masks, you’ll feel weird if you’re not.

In many parts of Asia, people often wear masks on the street even during normal times, which encourages even more people to wear them now. In many parts of Europe and the Americas, though, masks are still a rare sight. As a result, people hesitate to be the first to wear one.

To compare it to something that’s totally normalized in the U.S., consider the baseball cap. You might not wear one regularly, but you wouldn’t feel particularly odd doing so because they’re very common in American culture.

Beyond the lack of normalization, hiding your face behind a mask is often associated with crime in the U.S., rather than protecting public health.

This is why wearing a mask in a non-mask-wearing culture can help everyone around you in more ways than one. Not only will it help slow the transmission of COVID-19, but it will also help normalize masks in your community by encouraging more people to wear them.

So, even if most people around you aren’t masked up, go ahead and put one on (and post a masked selfie while you’re at it). Others will hopefully follow suit, and make your entire community safer.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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