a man in a mask behind a plastic barrier

Mask-shaming Doesn’t Work. Here’s What Does.

You’ve seen the viral videos, people capturing moments where they confronted maskless shoppers in the store or at an event. Or, more often, there was no confrontation or direct contact at all. Instead, there was a snarky comment on social media, or a photo taken from a distance.

Mask-shaming is really about shaming people who DON’T wear masks.

All of us know people who have commented on and shared these posts. Some of us know people who took the videos, or were featured in them. 

We should know, from our experience with similar situations, that these acts of shaming strangers on social media does not work to change their behavior, and does not help the situation in the moment. 

People who are angry are not at their best in that moment. Putting them on camera is likely to intensify their anger rather than calm them down. This creates an even riskier situation for all involved, especially for the employees of the store who are tasked with calmly and gently helping that person find their way out of the store.


What is mask-shaming?

Mask-shaming is one of many different types of social media shaming we see too often. 

Shaming is the act of showing someone doing something that is embarrassing or harmful, and then sharing it to a wide audience. We see it done with dogs, pictured with signs next to furniture or possessions they have destroyed. Pet-shaming is NOT shaming in any real sense, because even if dogs are subject to feeling shame (a subject of some debate) they are unlikely to encounter their picture on social media.

Shaming also occurs with some over-zealous parents who catch their kids breaking a rule and share a picture and a caption with the wider community. The effect of this act is that the child feels shame, instead of being corrected. Sharing it with the wider community erodes the trust connection between parent and child, and eventually can lead to harmful family rifts.

In some cases, these sorts of shaming incidents have led to assaults, lawsuits people losing their jobs, and even suicide.

Mask-shaming fits into a slightly different category than others, because it involves efforts to control a communicable disease. People in public who are not wearing a mask are running the risk of spreading a deadly disease that they might – or might not – have. And they risk spreading it to strangers.

Many people think mask-shaming is okay because they feel that they are protecting the public health. COVID-19 is shown to kill roughly 5% of those who contract it, yet the ability to control the spread is fairly well understood, with a mask being central 

a man in a mask behind a plastic barrier
Mask shaming isolates us from each other. Photo by Cottonbro at Pexels. 

How mask-shaming gets it wrong

First, when mask-shaming happens on social media, a person is being targeted without being given the chance to defend themselves. This is happening often to people that the shamers don’t know.

Attacking strangers violates the policies of most editorial boards and social media companies, and with good reason. We can’t have a civil society if we protect speech that attacks other people in public. We have laws that protect us from slander and libel.

Second, even though these shamers are theoretically promoting public health, they are doing it at the expense of the social fabric. The best way to help someone accept the social norms and expectations is to show them the benefits of following the rules. Make it easy for them. 

By shaming or attacking them, you attempt to hurt their social standing. This makes them want to fight harder against you, not to agree with you.

Mask rules and efforts to control COVID work best in societies where there is high social trust. An example of this is Taiwan where they went 200 days without a locally-transmitted case of COVID. In that society, people trusted their leadership, followed guidelines, and worked to stop the spread of the disease. Recently in Australia, they went several days without a new case of COVID

Results like these come from having a strong social connection and sense of individual responsibility for the whole community.

Shaming of any sort does not build this sense of responsibility.


What would work instead

So it turns out that catching people at their worst moments and sharing the video with friends and strangers doesn’t help. 

That was never the only option we had. Here’s what will work to help people wear a mask when they should in public.

Approach them privately, without a camera on or even present. This allows them the chance to correct and for the interaction to be private. It is far easier for someone to admit a mistake to one caring person than to an audience of unknown size.

Approach with the attitude that they have made an unintentional mistake. Don’t act as if they are intentionally trying to kill people. Almost no one is doing that. (At least at the start of these videos. You will note that sometimes by the end of the video they are – that is the effect of shame and anger intensified with an audience.)

Invite them to do it the right way and offer a solution. “There are masks at the front desk, would you like me to grab one for you?” “Oh you forgot your mask today? I can hold on to the items you have selected and you can come back and finish you shopping with a mask.”

Don’t escalate the consequences unless they absolutely refuse. When you get into a power struggle, it is not wise to threaten the biggest consequence first. Instead, try to avoid a discussion of what “getting in trouble” looks like, and instead focus on the benefits of wearing a mask.

What if a person claims a medical exemption to mask-wearing? Express your sympathy with their condition, and again focus on offering solutions. Does the store offer a pick-up service? Perhaps ask if someone in their family in better physical condition can do the shopping during the pandemic. 


Shaming is a damaging and counter-productive response to any misbehavior. Resist the urge to make it worse by sharing it on social media.


Struggling to deal with the anxiety around COVID-19? Uncertain of how to handle issues with your children at school? Is managing your family relationships a full-time job? Sakina Issa can help. Talking with a trained therapist allows you to evaluate options and take steps you might not have seen otherwise. And by pressing the red button on this page, you can set up a no-obligation consultation.



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