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Globe reporter Alexandra Posadzki.handout

Last month, while attending an outdoor, physically-distanced wedding celebration, I committed the ultimate pandemic fashion faux pas: sporting a full regalia of protective gear, including a visor shield and mask.

I knew that my wardrobe choice would seem like overkill to some. After all, it was a small gathering in a sprawling backyard, and the couple had split the guestlist up into two time slots to guarantee no risk of crowding.

But after six months of strict social isolation, I was feeling nervous. As a telecom reporter at The Globe and Mail, I spend my days immersed in the news, so I’m acutely aware of the fact that infections in Ontario are rising rapidly – and that social gatherings are largely to blame. (That upward trend we were seeing back around the time of the wedding has continued, with Ontario reporting more than 500 new cases a day for the past 11 days. In Quebec, new cases now regularly exceed 1,000 per day.)

So I donned my protective gear, thinking it would make me feel safer and more comfortable. Instead, it left me feeling like an outcast.

A small handful of people arrived at the event wearing face coverings but soon removed them, likely to fit in with the rest of the maskless group.

Although we may not like to admit it, humans are ruled by social norms and hard-wired to take our cues from those around us. Our innate desire for belonging is apparently so strong that many of us will eschew public health guidance – and take our chances with a virus known to cause long-lasting health problems in some survivors – if that’s what our friends are doing.

Even the party’s host, a dear friend and one of the most conscientious people I know, caved to the peer pressure. At the start of the event she was wearing a mask; by the end she was reluctantly accepting congratulatory hugs. She had simply gotten tired of being the odd one out.

She’s certainly not alone. Many of us have, at some point during this pandemic, done things we didn’t feel right about to avoid being ostracized by our peers. “Personally, I’ve found it hard to be the squeaky wheel among my friends and have wavered about what’s appropriate,” Jane C. Hu wrote in Slate back in March. “Is it overly paranoid to suggest we cancel our dinner reservation? Will my friends think I’m being ridiculous?”

These dilemmas around etiquette may seem silly when we consider the gravity of the situation we’re all in, but the truth is, in the heat of the moment, we’re all incredibly susceptible to social pressure. Many of the people foregoing face coverings at social gatherings are thoughtful, caring individuals who dutifully don masks at grocery stores, on public transit and in most other settings. So why are we so reluctant to mask up when we’re with our friends, despite repeated pleas from health officials to do so?

It’s hard to say for certain, but there are a number of factors that could be playing a role.

For one thing, masks are awkward and uncomfortable. They muffle our voices, making it harder for us to hear each other, and get in the way of casually sipping a glass of wine.

There’s also the fear of offending others. It’s widely accepted to be wary of – and masked up around – strangers at the grocery store, but with our friends we’re expected to let our guards down. By now, we’re all aware that COVID-19 can be spread by people who aren’t experiencing any symptoms, but refusing to bare our faces in close company still subliminally says, “I don’t trust that you’re healthy and behaving responsibly.”

The pressure to make others feel comfortable, even to the peril of our own health and well-being, is especially strong for women. Many of us have been taught from a young age to be people pleasers, and these behaviours can be difficult to unlearn.

Additionally, some social circles glorify risky behaviours like smoking, binge drinking and drug abuse – and the collective group pressure to live dangerously can be strong. In these groups, wearing masks at a party is profoundly uncool.

But I think there might be something else at play here, too: escapism. Social outings provide a rare and much-needed diversion from the monotony and stresses of pandemic life. Seeing our friends can transport us back to a world before we became wracked with anxieties over our health, our employment status and the survival of our must vulnerable family members. Laughing over a drink with a long-time friend, for a brief moment we can almost forget about the colossal mess we’ve all found ourselves in – and we’re hesitant to sacrifice these brief glimmers of normalcy.

But with colder weather approaching, and opportunities for outdoor social interactions dwindling, sacrifices will have to be made. Will we resign ourselves to a winter of isolation, let the virus run rampant or risk killing the vibe by donning protective gear at social gatherings?

While my wedding party getup earned a few compliments, it drew many more strange looks. One partygoer remarked how the gear left my voice more muffled, forcing her to lean in closer so she could hear what I was saying.

In spite of this, I kept it on; mostly for protection but also because, after making such a strong statement, it would have felt even more awkward to ditch it.

I’m hoping that the next time I show up at a gathering clad in protective gear, I won’t be the only one.

What else we’re thinking about:

Speaking of social pressures, I recently watched Jeff Orlowski’s eye-opening documentary, The Social Dilemma, on Netflix. Featuring interviews with defectors from tech companies such as Facebook and Pinterest, the film shows us how social media was designed not only to be addictive but also to influence how we think and act. It makes a pretty compelling case for tossing out your phone and defecting to a cabin in the woods – or at least turning off your notifications and limiting your screen time.

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