How To Tell People To Fix Their Masks

The Gapster. The Coffee Loophole. The Nose-breather. How do you tell people to fix their masks?


Eric Dovigi

3 years ago | 12 min read

Source: Reuters NG

Okay, first thing’s first. Masks work.¹

Now that we have that out of the way, do you want to know what it’s like being a retail worker during a pandemic? Why wouldn’t you, right? Okay, try saying the following phrase out loud: “Excuse me, would you mind pulling your mask up over your nose?”

I’m serious. Wherever you’re sitting/standing/crouching/lying right now, say these words at an appreciable volume.

How did it make you feel? Well, if you’re anything like me, the mere thought of telling some random person in a store to fix their mask is bone-chilling. Even if you could somehow know for sure that they were cool, it would still be bone-chilling — because most of us don’t want to be the mask police. Certainly the people who staff the shops you’re grateful to be able to visit aren’t being paid to be the mask police.


What makes this infinitely more daunting is that the sort of person who won’t wear a mask properly is usually the sort of person who has the attitude, “I dare you to tell me my mask isn’t on properly.” They’re asking for a fight.

It’s uncomfortable, annoying, disrupting, and alien to a lot of our personalities — but we should be telling people to fix their masks. There’s a pandemic on, people. It literally makes a difference. Much has been said about the Americans who refuse to wear a mask. More needs to be said about the people who can’t or won’t wear them properly.

And if it bothers you when you see someone not wearing their mask properly, here’s the good news: you can do something about it.

What makes this infinitely more daunting is that the sort of person who won’t wear a mask properly is usually the sort of person who has the attitude, “I dare you to tell me my mask isn’t on properly.” They’re asking for a fight.

It’s uncomfortable, annoying, disrupting, and alien to a lot of our personalities — but we should be telling people to fix their masks. There’s a pandemic on, people. It literally makes a difference. Much has been said about the Americans who refuse to wear a mask. More needs to be said about the people who can’t or won’t wear them properly.

And if it bothers you when you see someone not wearing their mask properly, here’s the good news: you can do something about it.

Back to the Bookstore

Until the end of the spring semester, I was faculty in the English Department of a mid-sized university in the northern part of a Southwest US state. For 36k a year I taught English composition to mostly college freshmen. The composition instructors kind of formed a little self-contained bubble within the department: we had our own floor, copy-room, program director, and meetings. I will likely never find a better job. I certainly will never find one that leaves me more time-rich and fulfilled.

Then coronavirus happened. The school administration went full “shock doctrine” mode. My department was essentially dissolved; the classes are now mostly taught by grad students. I think one the instructors got to keep her job, but the other dozen of us didn’t. One is working on a YouTube series; a few others got gigs at different schools; I’m not sure what the rest are doing.

As for me: I went back to minimum wage. Retail.

I have no elitist qualms about working retail. Depending on the company and the team of coworkers it can be an entirely satisfactory kind of job (insofar as the 40 hour work week can be satisfactory). Where I live there is a certain used bookstore that over the years has acquired a reputation as being a “cool” place to work. Essentially, it is the local Powells. I worked there from 2014 to 2016, when I left to go grad school to get the degree that allowed me to score the teaching position.

So, full circle. Back to the bookstore for Eric.

By all non-COVID metrics, it was an even better place to work now than it had been before. The few troublemakers with whom I’d had to work were gone, and the new faces were all down to earth and fun. I was in a different department with easier tasks, headed by a personal friend. I was welcomed back very warmly. Heck, store hours were even shortened, so no one had to get up as early or stay at work as late.

Only one thing stood in the way of this being an okay place to land: the mask requirement.

Oh dear God, the mask requirement.

Fix Your Mask!!!

Whenever a customer was being a jerk, we used to say some variation of the formula “You know, think of all the hundreds of nice customers who don’t give us trouble.”

This no longer applies. The ratio is now appreciable.

I was horrified on day one to note the unwillingness or inability of a significant percentage of customers to properly wear their masks. They knew they couldn’t get in without one because of a store policy and a city ordinance that required masks, but somewhere between the door and the book stacks they forgot what the point of the requirement was.

So my workday became an endless series of “Excuse me, could you please pull your mask up over your nose?” and “Pardon me, can you please fix your mask?” or even the non-verbal gesture of pulling the mask over the nose. Literally any time I moved from one part of the store to another, I saw a customer whose mask was not on properly. I would say it was a solid… hmm… 5% of people. So if there were a hundred customers in the store at any given time, five of them were breathing their mucousy, clammy, potentially virus-ridden breath out for everyone to walk through and breathe in.

(Newsflash: it’s not easy to stay six feet away from people in a bookstore. For customers and employees. This is precisely the sort of situation in which masks shine.)

I noticed that customers never ask each other to fix their masks. It was the employees’ duty to tell people.

Two things.

  1. That is entirely understandable and based on human nature.
  2. It’s messed up.

I lasted two weeks. Then I decided that minimum wage was insufficient compensation for being the mask police.

Here’s What You Can Do

As a customer, as a citizen, as someone who values the health of the people around you and of society as a whole, you get to tell people to fix their masks.

We should not be relying on employees to do our dirty work for us. They’re already putting their health on the line so that we get to shop somewhere. Let’s help them out a bit.

It’s one of those things the difficulty of which belies the simplicity. You know what you have to do. But it’s hard. It’s awkward. Trust me, I get it. I never liked telling customers at my bookstore to fix their masks. Every time I did it, I wondered “how much trouble is this person going to give me?” Sometimes they were very polite. Sometimes (most often, actually), they said nothing, or maybe grumbled a bit. Sometimes — and yes, if you’re doing your civic duty correctly, it will happen — they cursed me out, or tried to cause a scene, or flat-out refused.

If you don’t have the authority of being an employee, it’s likely going to be even more difficult for people to respond positively. Think about yourself: when someone tries to correct your behavior, it feels bad, doesn’t it? Your first instinct is to find a way out of the criticism. The knee-jerk reaction is antagonism. This is human nature. We evolved in close-knit social groups, and social criticism of any kind taps into our instinctual fear of rejection, which posed a very practical threat to our well-being thousands of years ago.²


Here’s what will happen. You’re in the book store. Someone is wearing their face-mask like a moron. You want to say, “Excuse me, why are you being a moron?” but you actually say, “Excuse me, could you please pull your mask up over your nose?”

  1. If they’re an exceptional person, they’ll agreeably fix their mask and maybe even apologize or crack a joke.
  2. If they’re a reasonable person, they’ll fix their mask despite the negative feeling of having been corrected. They’ll grumble. That’s okay. They’re not grumbling at you, they’re grumbling in order to save face — and face-saving is a natural, age-old part of negotiation.
  3. Here is the sort of person you have to worry about: the one who doesn’t think that they should have to be wearing a mask in the first place. This person will probably be upset that you’re correcting them. Think about it. If you felt like you were conceding a great deal even by sort of doing something you didn’t think you had to do, then someone comes along and tells you to do it better, wouldn’t it make you mad?

This person is not going to fix their mask. They might try to start an argument. If they do, say nothing. Walk away. There is no rhetoric you can offer this person that’s going to persuade them to fix their mask. The mere act of engaging with them was the most persuasive thing you could have done. Because if they go through a whole shopping experience with no one telling them to fix their mask, the message they come away with is “People don’t care about masks. We’re all just going through the motions. I am justified in half-doing this.” By asking them to fix their mask, they come away with a different message: “It bothers people when I don’t wear my mask properly.”

It might sound weird, but shame is an important tool societies use to regulate behavior.³

What To Do If You’re Super Nervous

It’s normal to find this nausea-inducing. Those who are totally comfortable correcting social misbehavior on cue are in the minority. So, let’s go back through this and talk about what its like for those of us who find the idea particularly terrifying.

You’re in the book store, and right there is a person whose mask is below their nose. Time to act.

You’ll be nervous before you even approach. You might circle around the offender a few times, pretend to want to buy a Henry James book so that you can work up the courage to say something. Then they push their cart away (they had carts in my bookstore for some reason), and you have to pretend to want to buy Charlotte Bronte next.

You might chicken out entirely. With a sigh of relief, realize that they’re too far away. Or maybe they even eventually fixed their mask on their own. Great, you can worry about it some other day.

Hold it right there. You can’t escape that easily. Here are two more people not wearing their masks correctly. Dang. You walk past one of them, and… heart pounding… you say it.

Or you chicken out again.

That’s going to happen. Make your goal to just get a little closer each time. This might sound silly, but practice on a roommate. Say the phrase out loud. It’s going to be way harder if literally the first time you say the words is in the moment.

The emotion of nervousness (and I claim it is an emotion) is powerful. Another powerful emotion? Anger.

That’s my trick. I get angry.

Source: Freepik
Source: Freepik

There is a f*cking pandemic happening. People are dying by the millions, and you can’t even wear a mask properly? F*ck you. You consider my life less important than your own brief comfort. You are the paragon of selfishness.

I don’t say this out loud, of course. I say it to myself. There are few motivating forces as surefire as righteous anger. And out of this righteous anger, all I want is that little, polite phrase: “Excuse me, could you please fix your mask?”

Try anger. Anger’s good.⁴

What’s the Point?

There’s this thing called the categorical imperative.5 To paraphrase, the categorical imperative refers to the notion that a certain action is good if, under the hypothetical circumstance that everyone did it, society would be better. “Thou shalt not steal” is a pretty basic example. I might not steal a candybar even if I had a clear opportunity to do so, not because there is going to be a particularly negative outcome (it’s just a candybar), but because I understand that if people went around stealing things whenever they personally judged it to be okay, society would be worse off. (There are some objections to the strength of this idea, so read up on the categorical imperative if you’d like to engage more with the concept).

Apparently you can buy Kant masks. Source:
Apparently you can buy Kant masks. Source:

Mask wearing is a solid example of a categorical imperative. You might be quite sure that you don’t have coronavirus. But you wear a mask anyways because you understand that if everyone wore a mask under all relevant circumstances, then society would have a huge leg up in the fight against coronavirus.

The principal holds true for telling people to fix their masks. If everyone did it, the perpetrators would be a situation where they couldn’t go anywhere without being constantly asked to fix their masks. They would either correct their own behavior or endure constant requests to do so. The only other option would be to stay home, which, great. Please do. We both should be at home anyways.

Imperative is a fancy word for duty. The point of this article is to talk about what your duty is as a citizen. The thing about the categorical imperative that can sometimes be discouraging is that there are lots of situations where it seems irrational. Like stealing the candy bar: if you really want a candy bar, and you’re at Walmart, and it seems like literally nobody is going to suffer if you just take the candy bar, it might seem silly and prim to miss your chance just because of some abstract moral notion. It seems this way because the heart of the categorical imperative does not lie in individual circumstance but the collective aggregate of all circumstances. The collective whole. Like voting. Donald Trump ain’t going to lose by one vote, but you vote against him anyways because you believe that the world would be a less orange place if all Americans did too. Again: the collective whole.

And the collective whole is something that many of us have lost sight of, living as we do in a culture that prizes individuality above all else.


You’re going to feel better too. You’ll feel more in control. You’ll feel like, *gasp*, you live in a society.

Pep Talk

Here’s the thing. You can do this.

Work your way up to it. Choose someone who looks reasonably nice as your first experiment. Hedge, if you need to (“I don’t mean to be a jerk,” “I’m sorry, but…”). Eventually you’ll get to a place where you don’t need to hedge, you’ll be able to just be direct and brief. But if hedging helps, go for it.

Own it. I almost bought a custom shirt today that would have said “Fix your mask” (the only reason I didn’t is because, apparently, custom shirts are super expensive).

Remember that you are in the right. They are in the wrong. They also happen to be being selfish, childish, and obstreperous.

When I was a teacher, the thankfully rare occasions when I would have to reprimand a student used to freak me out a little. I would get flustered, my breath would quicken, and my hands would start to shake. I’d think, “Why are you behaving like this? We’re in college, for God’s sake.” Then after the fact, I would worry about what my students thought of me. A helpful colleague told me, when I asked for advice, “Don’t forget. You’re the teacher. They’re the students. They don’t know that you’re nervous. They aren’t thinking about you. They’re thinking about themselves.”

When you ask someone to fix their mask, you automatically sound assertive. If they’re thinking anything about you, they’re thinking that you must be a confident person if you have the gumption to correct their behavior out of the blue. They’re probably more afraid of you than you of them.
And it’s a cliche, but you don’t have to feel confident. You don’t have to feel like the teacher to discipline your students. That’s the beauty of the thing. You don’t have to feel heroic, but by telling people to fix their masks, you’re going to be a mask-hero. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you could be the factor that prevented someone from spreading coronavirus to half a dozen people.

You’re going to do it. And you’re going to do great. And you’re going to utterly improve the lives of the retail workers, service workers, and front-lines employees who have to do this dozens of times a day.

¹Jotz, Geraldo Pereira, and Bittencourt, Aline Gomes. “Why We Need to Use and Which Mask Types Are Effective against the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)?” International Archives of Otorhinolaryngology 24.3 (2020): E255–257. Web.

²Gruter, M; Masters, R (1986). “Ostracism as a social and biological phenomenon: An introduction”. Ethology and Sociobiology. 7 (3–4): 149–158

³Jarvis, Lee C. “Shame and Institutional Stability — or — Change in Healthcare.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 36.3/4 (2016): 173–89. Web.

⁴ “Motivational Effects of Anger.”, 2020.


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Eric Dovigi







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