Songs for the Struggling Artist

Is This Why Men Won’t Wear Masks?

I have cracked it. I understand why so many men are so reluctant to wear their masks. I understand entirely. (There’s quite a bit of reporting about this gender gap in mask wearing. I’m going to lean into some binary generalizations here for effect, but gender is a spectrum and I know these things aren’t true for everyone.)

I solved the mask mystery at a café where I witnessed a man in a Batman mask attempting to make a joke to the barista. When she didn’t get it, he just repeated it. He repeated it at exactly the same volume and with the same intonation. I couldn’t hear a word of it myself (I was a sufficient distance away) but I could hear the rhythm and the volume. He tried again but he finally gave up when she said, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you because of the mask.”

He was clearly very frustrated by the situation and seemed to feel the problem was with his listener, not with his speaking. He could not even conceive of having to adjust his own communication for the benefit of another. And it occurs to me that the masks create a limitation that many men have never had to deal with before.

Here’s, a big generalization about gender but still, a pattern I’ve noticed. Most women have grown up in a world wherein they are only sporadically heard or paid attention to. We learn to adjust our speech to the person we are attempting to communicate with. When you’re used to not being heard it means you learn to try a multitude of strategies to get your point across. It means you will shift your volume, your intonation, your emphasis, your word choice or your physicality in order to be heard. If I tell a woman, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” she is likely to respond by either changing word choice or by repeating what she said, with a variation that will improve the likelihood of my getting it. When I say this to a man, I usually just get the same thing he said before, in exactly the same way he said it before. This can go on three to five times before he’ll finally use a different word, intonation, volume or emphasis.

I can’t tell you the numbers of times I’ve said, “Sorry. Still no. Nope. Still not getting it. I heard the first part but what’s the second? One more time? Nope.”

I’m not saying all women are perfect paragons of communication. We are not. But I do think we are, very generally, more accustomed to not being heard or understood and making the necessary adjustments. We are also used to working pretty hard to understand what men are saying. In this patriarchal world, our very survival can depend on our quickly understanding what a man has said.

But the masks make this whole dynamic much more difficult. The benefit of being quickly understood is lost behind a mask. No one can read the extra cues and clues. We really just have the words and volume and tone with which they are spoken. So many men, used to having most people understand them, are suddenly unable to make their needs known. They can’t make a joke at the café. They can’t order a coffee. They fail once and get frustrated with either their listeners or their masks. They don’t yet have the adaptive skill of just adjusting their volume or their diction or changing the words. For a certain variety of man, it’s just easier to not wear a mask at all. He prefers it to not being understood. He’d rather risk his life and the lives of the people around him than not be understood.

Theatre guys aren’t like this in this arena. They know how to deal with the limitation of a costume piece and actors know that if someone says they can’t hear you that that means you have to speak more loudly and clearly. Sometimes it feels like that’s half of theatre training – just learning to adjust your volume and diction for the circumstances. This guy in the coffee shop was not a theatre guy.

This guy in the coffee shop was clearly concerned about maintaining a certain macho aura. He’s part of a tribe that was forged in toxic masculinity and probably the sort that takes offense at the very concept of toxic masculinity. You know the kind. The ones that don’t understand that the toxic is there to describe a variety of masculinity, not masculinity itself.

In a man less hemmed in by toxic masculinity, this experience might make him more empathetic to the experience of people who have struggled to be heard their whole lives. But for some, it’s just easier to posture like Mr. Tough Guy, a guy who’s too tough for viruses, who won’t get sick, no sir. So I’m actually a little bit proud of the guy in the Batman mask, who was clearly straining against the bounds of his mask, who scoffed at the barista’s repeated question about whether he wanted milk in his coffee because he’s a tough guy and takes it a manly black and how could she not understand that about him? But he kept that mask on and he did not give up even though I know it was hard for him.

Sometimes I feel like getting a roll of gold star stickers and giving them out to people who are clearly having a hard time but are doing the right thing anyway. I’d give that guy a gold star, because he was learning a hard lesson right there in the café – and he kept that mask on and figured out how to simplify his communication so he could get what he wanted. He surrendered his usual strategy of trying to joke with young women in service and just got on with things. Just getting on with things is all most of us want to do right now. And if you’re a man struggling to communicate through your mask, try changing your volume, your diction, your intonation or your words until you got your point across. If you don’t know how to do those things, find a theatre guy. He’ll know how to do it. And when you figure it out, I will give you a gold star.

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