Around the County

Masks with smiley faces?

By Pat Stuart
Posted 9/17/20

It doesn’t occur to me, as I’m walking into Blair’s hooking an elastic over an ear, that I’ve just masked my facial expressions. The day is warm. People are in short-sleeved …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in
Around the County

Masks with smiley faces?


It doesn’t occur to me, as I’m walking into Blair’s hooking an elastic over an ear, that I’ve just masked my facial expressions. The day is warm. People are in short-sleeved shirts, jeans, shorts, sandals, etc. Almost everyone, including me, sports sunglasses.

My recovery from knee replacement surgery is almost complete, but I’m still hobbling a little. That tells me I’m not yet 100%. Thus, the mask. Plus, of course, I’m in that target age category. But, who wants to remember.

Anyway, almost at the last minute I spot an unmasked woman I know coming out. We’re not friends but acquaintances who belong to one of the same social groups. We exchange greetings when we meet and always smile and nod and make short conversation about the weather.

So, she smiles and I smile and say, “Hot day today.” Then, I keep my awkward gait in motion, going into the cool interior through the open doors. She almost stops, and I see a blank look on her face.

The expression stays with me as I collect a cart and a wipe, swab at the handle and the basket, one part of my mind thinking the whole cleaning ritual is a waste of time. For a while early in the pandemic, I wore disposable gloves, which made more sense. Now? Maybe I pray a little more.

Anyway, at another level that expression still bothers me. She had smiled and recognized me, I’m sure. After all, even in a mask with sunglasses, my height, skinny figure and short gray hair can’t be missed.

I’ve gone through the vegetables and fruits and have tackled the meat coolers when it hits me. She’d seen none of my expressions. Not the crinkling around my eyes or the lift to my cheeks or the big upward curve on the outer ends of my lips. In short, I’d smiled, and she’d totally missed it. I’d relied on the smile to speak a thousand words for me.

The smile, if she’d seen it, would have said, “Encountering you makes me happy. It’s good to see you out and about and in obvious good health.” On another level, it adds, “I value you enough to smile.” And, “I hope you continue to be fine.”

But she hadn’t seen the smile. A faceless, expressionless figure had said, “Hot day, today.” She’d missed the whole message, and creature of habit that I am, I missed it, too. I’d actually only communicated an impersonal, obvious observation: “Hot day, today.”


That realization precipitated a cascade of other observations, like: Here we are in a pandemic. Many are suffering from isolation, from economic hardships, from dislocations. Our values and institutions are under assault. Violence rocks some of our most placid cities. Respect for authority is breaking down. The national debt has run into figures so astronomical that we can’t begin to comprehend the damage it will do to us, not to mention that our economy is in the toilet while the rich are getting rich in a head-in-the-sand stock market. Our military is engaged in senseless and endless wars. We can’t count on our traditional trading partners. Our friends and neighbors, like Canada and Mexico, pity us. The poor among us get poorer. The average citizen — what is left of the middle class — stagger along rather like the way my legs and feet work ... a lot of effort for some forward movement.

And the vast majority of us are further hobbled by masks that might keep the virus out of our systems but also stops our most potent and effective communication tool — the smile.

A smile might not be a magic bullet. It’s not necessarily a unifier, but it is a de-escalator and an olive branch. A smile tells a friend that you value them and a stranger that you recognize them as a human being — one you respect. A smile out your car window tells a policeman how much you appreciate his work. A smile to a child means you have confidence in him or her. A smile says you mean no harm.

All of those things are just for openers.

Who can say how much of the current conflict that surrounds us has been aggravated by the absence of others being able to see that most basic of human expressions, the smile. One thing I’m sure of: The smile’s disappearance behind COVID-19 masks may not have created our problems, but it’s not helped defuse or resolve them, either.

Which isn’t to say we should get rid of them; absolutely not. It is to say we need to be aware and compensate or ... how about masks with smiley faces?