Mask wearing rules! Formal and interpersonal rules in public disputes about face coverings

Jack B Joyce, Adrian Kerrison, Hanna-Leena Ristimäki

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Our research is interested in the invocation/rejection of formal rules versus the more local management of interpersonal rules. We ask how rules around (non)mask wearing are negotiated, and how people are held accountable for their social behaviour during Covid-19? Owing to the global Covid-19 pandemic, many countries have mandated rules around using face coverings in public spaces (eg. shops, public transport). As the Covid-19 pandemic began there was conflicting information as to whether masks were helpful in slowing the spread of the virus; however, research later confirmed the usefulness of face coverings (see Greenhalgh et al., 2020) and thus they were required in public spaces in most countries from the middle of 2020. The conflicting information regarding the usefulness of masks fostered anti-mask movements such as the “anti-maskers” who label face coverings as “muzzles”. Using Conversation Analysis (CA), we examine sequences of naturally occurring talk where a dispute over (non)mask wearing occurs. This method uniquely captures the linguistic practices which are used to (1) account for (not) wearing a mask, (2) produce and police rules of social conduct, (3) contend with moral issues. Our collection is being expanded and comprises recordings of public disputes regarding mask wearing. These recordings are produced by participants (usually on a mobile phone), and are subsequently uploaded onto social media (e.g. TikTok, YouTube, Twitter) often in an effort to ridicule one or both of the disputants. The current context of Covid-19 has presented EMCA researchers with a novel opportunity to document ‘change-in-the-making’, whether that is new forms of greetings (eg. elbow bumps, foot taps etc.) (Mondada et al., 2020); communication through a mask (Cantarutti, 2020); or, the new normal of healthcare consultations (Seuren, 2020). Indeed, scrutinising new rules of social behaviour is important -- but as is investigating the contentious nature of these rules, and how people adhere and breach them in their everyday lives (see Garfinkel, 1967). It is important to understand whether and how these rules of social behaviour are enforced, and individuals’ language solutions for producing and contesting rules. Pulling this together, our presentation will shine a light on how “change-in-the-making” (Mondada et al., 2020) is contended with, how “new” rules of social behaviour are not straightforwardly accepted, and the ways that arguments surrounding the face coverings are constructed on a moment-by-moment basis. Cantarutti. M. N. (2020). The language of masked communication. Available at: Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Polity. Greenhalgh, T., Schmid, M. B., Czypionka, T., Bassler, D., & Gruer, L. (2020). Face masks for the public during the covid-19 crisis. BMJ, 368. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m1435 Mondada, L., Bänninger, J., Bouaouina, S. A., Camus, L., Gauthier, G., Hänggi, P., Koda, M., Svensson, H., & Tekin, B. S. (2020). Human sociality in the times of the Covid‐19 pandemic: A systematic examination of change in greetings. Journal of Sociolinguistics. Seuran, L. (2020). Video calling your doctor. Naked Scientists Interview with Lucas Seuren. Available at:
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2 Jul 2021
Event17th International Pragmatics Association conference - Winterthur, Switzerland
Duration: 28 Jun 20212 Jul 2021
Conference number: 17


Conference17th International Pragmatics Association conference
Abbreviated titleIPrA


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