What is Masking?

Masking is a process in which humans change or “mask” their natural personality to conform to social norms or conventional ‘expected’ behaviors. The term masking was first used to describe the act of concealing disgust by Ekman (1972) and Friesen (1969).

During our everyday social life, the face we present to others is rarely our genuine face. Only in exceptional cases does one display ones real feelings. ‘Day after day we cover up this bare human being. We hold ourselves in careful control lest our bodies cry out messages our minds are too careless to hide’ (Pease, 1993).

In recent developmental studies, masking has evolved and is now defined as “concealing one's emotion by portraying another emotion”. It is mostly used to conceal a negative emotion (usually sadness, frustration, and anger) with a positive emotion.

Masking is thought of as a learned behavior. It includes facial gestures and can involve the whole body. Developmental studies have shown that this ability has begun as early as childhood since we were disciplined to carefully control our external behavior in society.

One obvious sign of such disciplining is ‘the way we manage our personal appearance, the clothes we select and the hairdos we affect’ (Goffman, 1969). By and large, we follow the conventional ‘expected’ behavior: neat clothes, a clean-shaven face, well-groomed hair, and so on.

Social etiquetteOpens in new window decides what is proper and what is not in terms of body languageOpens in new window. There are cultural variations in the techniques of masking, but the basic fact of masking exists at all levels of society and in all cultural set-ups.

When we are stressed or under exhaustion, however, we drop our masks and expose ourselves as we really are. For example, at the end of a hectic day when we are trapped at the end of a long queue to catch a bus, we cover up our frustration by artificial—or social—smiles when we step on someone’s toes, literally or idiomatically. The smile, nevertheless, serves as a good masking device.

It is not possible to mask involuntary reactions, like perspirationOpens in new window when we are under tension, or trembling to hide these signs by placing our hands in our pockets or standing behind a piece of furniture.

Fast (1970) observed that children and servants are treated as ‘non-persons’, and therefore adults do not need to wear masks when dealing with them. This attitude is also related to class consciousness. One class of society will not wear a mask before a class lower than itself. People of a given status will not mask before those of a lower status. The boss may not feel the need of masking in the presence of his employee; the lady of the house will be her natural self with her maid. Parents will be themselves before their wards. The need to mask is so compelling that it becomes second nature to us, whether in public or private.

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