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Mask Up: How Do You Say Hello When Nobody Can See You Smile?

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The following article was originally published April 13, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Sharon McNary

It's our new reality: Angelenos are now required to wear a mask when visiting grocery stores and other essential business. Some jurisdictions, like San Bernardino County, are even stricter, asking you to wear a mask when you leave home.

These rules are meant to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, but it's challenging our social conventions.

Under a mask, nobody can see you smile.

You may think we can see you smile with your eyes, or smize, as supermodel Tyra Banks puts it. But when your glasses are fogged up with vapor exhalation, all those droplets that you're politely keeping to yourself, you're not really expressing your friendliest self.

What L.A. needs now is a robust new vocabulary of hand gestures that say, "Hello, neighbor. I care."

We're all relying on new body language — the finger guns, Namaste prayer hands.

Or heart hands, V for Victory, a Japanese-style bow, the closed hand to the chest, Hawaiian shaka greeting, rock-and-roll horns, thumbs up or a solidarity fist.

George Cook from Silverlake is used to communicating with a mask on since he's been going to Burning Man for years. He tries to give people their distance when he greets them. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
George Cook from Silverlake is used to communicating with a mask on since he's been going to Burning Man for years. He tries to give people their distance when he greets them. | Chava Sanchez/LAist

KPCC/LAist visual journalist Chava Sanchez captured some of the new ways we are saying hello.

Kristina Wong has been meeting new people all over L.A. as she delivers supplies for a volunteer mask-sewing group. And she finds it a challenge to come up with the right hand gestures to replace a smile.

Maricruz Morales uses her hands more when greeting people these days, and smizes at them to try to disarm them. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Maricruz Morales uses her hands more when greeting people these days, and smizes at them to try to disarm them. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Olivia Mazurek says she almost forgot how to socialize and felt fear when interacting with people, but she feels it's important to at least acknowledge others as she takes walks so she'll throw up double peace signs as a greeting. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Olivia Mazurek says she almost forgot how to socialize and felt fear when interacting with people, but she feels it's important to at least acknowledge others as she takes walks so she'll throw up double peace signs as a greeting. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Smizing and waving are the go-to greetings these days for Adrienne Sacks and Mackenzie Katz, but for the most part they try to steer clear of people. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Smizing and waving are the go-to greetings these days for Adrienne Sacks and Mackenzie Katz, but for the most part they try to steer clear of people. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Chris Bedford takes precautions when approaching people, but will generally smile and have a socially distant conversation with folks. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Chris Bedford takes precautions when approaching people, but will generally smile and have a socially distant conversation with folks. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Vergilio Leon says face masks have changed everything for him. He finds it's difficult to convey his expressions, but when he has to greet someone he'll throw up his arm and loudly say hello. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Vergilio Leon says face masks have changed everything for him. He finds it's difficult to convey his expressions, but when he has to greet someone he'll throw up his arm and loudly say hello. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Jeremy O'Keefe goes on long walks everyday and he usually greets everyone he sees with a smile and a wave. Nowadays he tries to greet people with a smize. It's important to him to acknowledge people and let them know non-verbally that they are safe.
Jeremy O'Keefe goes on long walks everyday and he usually greets everyone he sees with a smile and a wave. Nowadays he tries to greet people with a smize. It's important to him to acknowledge people and let them know non-verbally that they are safe.

"I just find myself going, 'Hello. Thank you for working,' like, through my mask. And having this like love and heroic appreciation for them."

But wearing masks isn't just new and uncomfortable — for some people of color it can make them feel like a target.

Kristina Wong smiles and rapidly waves her hands in the air. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Kristina Wong smiles and rapidly waves her hands in the air. | Chava Sanchez/LAist

"I'm not going to put on something that causes me to stand out in a negative way," said Sheldon Wright, an African American resident of Monrovia who works for an insurance company.

He sewed part of a white-and-brown plaid handkerchief on the outside of his mask. The hankie belonged to his late father, who died of pneumonia four years ago, so it has sentimental value.

Sheldon Wright demonstrates an elbow bump greeting while wearing a mask sewed with a part of his late father's handkerchief. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Sheldon Wright demonstrates an elbow bump greeting while wearing a mask sewed with a part of his late father's handkerchief. | Chava Sanchez/LAist

And it prompts interested conversation from people like checkout clerks, whose parents might also have owned similar handkerchiefs.

While wearing a mask, "you can't see my smile, you can't see what I believe about me (and what) makes me approachable. I need to find other ways to convey I am still approachable," Wright said.

Luis Guzman, who lost his job as California went into shutdown, relies on the bus to get around. As a worker in the U.S. illegally who will not be receiving money from the federal stimulus package, he tries to limit all interaction.
Luis Guzman, who lost his job as California went into shutdown, relies on the bus to get around. As a worker in the U.S. illegally who will not be receiving money from the federal stimulus package, he tries to limit all interaction.
Paul and Elsa Santos no longer greet most people because of their fear of catching COVID-19. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Paul and Elsa Santos no longer greet most people because of their fear of catching COVID-19. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Jeremy H. and Tanasia M. rarely go out even for walks, and when they do they keep to themselves, and rarely talk to anyone. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Jeremy H. and Tanasia M. rarely go out even for walks, and when they do they keep to themselves, and rarely talk to anyone. | Chava Sanchez/LAist

Me? I give people I know a full hand wave and maybe a chin pop.

Or, as in this photo, where I'm attempting a smize.

Sharon McNary in a mask she made to match her shirt. | Sharon McNary/LAist
Sharon McNary in a mask she made to match her shirt. | Sharon McNary/LAist

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