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The Risk of Contamination

California: dawn on the flight between LAX and SFO

It might look like a mask but it’s actually a cultural grenade.

This week I walked into the italian delicatessen next to our design studio wearing anti-bacterial face mask. The deli wasn’t contaminated but given the reaction of one of the staff to the mask you might have assumed that it was.

Calabasas: a mask worn

Been under the weather these last couple of days – the result of a flu-like bug picked up somewhere between Pu Dong and LAX and amplified by layers of jet lag. The default assumption for people from individualistic societies such as America when they see someone wearing a face mask is that the mask is there to protect the wearer from others, whereas in more collectivist societies such as Japan the opposite is true – the mask is there to protect others from you. Which is why the deli-staff reaction was so understandable – the mask sent a signal to their other customers that their staff were infected, their working environment was unclean.

Does a face mask actually work in cutting down the risk of infecting others? The mask works on a number of levels: the physical filter reduces the spread of germs – though this is never going to be 100%; more importantly it’s obvious physical presence sends a signal to other people that you are sick and that, if the cost of them becoming infected is extreme (pregnant spouses, upcoming wedding, …) they should steer clear; your physical presence says ‘despite being sick, I’m here, you’re that important’; and depending on the context can also suggest ‘I’m sick, I actually don’t care whether I infect other people, because obviously I’m here’. In cultures where masks are not common – most of this goes unsaid.

As a Danish colleague pointed out – if you’re that sick don’t come into work, but of course sickness is a matter of degrees. In many Japanese offices the pressure to be seen to be around is great – the collective desire for social cohesion, to maintain rank can out trump more practical concerns such as whether there is ‘hands-on work’ to be done – if you’re sick you’ll come into work and try to avoid infecting others. My mask motivation: was over the worst and wanted to minimise any risk of infecting colleagues that can ill-afford to be likewise infected.

How might this social positioning play out in our bacterially rich future perfect? As our ability to understand and manipulate bodily bacteria evolves it might be the newly terraformed blotches on the palm of your hand, the tint of eyes/contact lenses or the tips of your ears that indicate to others the state of your health.

Should you decide to share it.

Should you have the choice.

Go forth and spawn.