Amid COVID-19, masks and social distancing have shrouded our identities

The corona age has forced us to socially distance and shroud much of our identities. It turns out that we cannot even rely on our names to define us anymore.

Face masks (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Face masks
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
A crazy thing happened on the way to my weekly grocery shopping a short while ago.
A rack of “specials” at the entrance to a clothing store diverted me as I was about to enter the supermarket at the Ramot Mall. Over the years I have made a few purchases there and I vaguely recall the personnel who have remained a constant even as the apparel has changed. But I was not prepared for the very affectionate welcome I received on this recent visit. As I walked in, the friendly lady at the counter greeted me with gusto.
“Richard,” she said, “How have you been?”
While it is gratifying to be recognized, I could not believe that she had the marketing skills and remarkable memory necessary to recall the name of a customer who had made a minor purchase a couple of years earlier. The only access she might have to my name would have been a glance at my credit card, which would be highly unlikely given my aversion to debt that compels me to pay cash, especially for small purchases.
Another aversion I have is to embarrassing both acquaintances and strangers unnecessarily. Instantly concluding that the friendly lady knew me from a different setting, I gamely tried to steer the conversation in a direction which would hint to our connection. No luck there. All the while I was wondering if the unfortunate prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in my mother’s family was kicking in, way ahead of schedule.
Having run out of ideas, I finally said to my long-lost newly (re?)discovered friend, “Apologies, but please remind me. How do we know each other?” Quite upset, she reminded me that we had worked together 10 years ago! Now, I have been working for the same employer for 33 years, with a staff that is as constant as the days in the week. How could I possibly not remember her?
In desperation, I asked her where we had been mutually employed to which she replied, “Are you kidding me? At the Emmanuel Gift Store!” Well, when I last checked, which happened to be that day, I was working in property and medical management.
And then the proverbial penny dropped.
FOR QUITE a while now, until COVID kicked in, once or twice a year I had frequented the said gift store and made a great connection with the manager. Our rapport was established on my first visit when he asked me for my name in order to print a receipt. When I told him, he said, “That’s funny, my name is also Richard.” We joked about how few Richards there are in Israel. (I am aware of one other.)
So it turns out that my new friend from the clothing store, looking at me straight in the eye from two meters for a few minutes, thought that I was the only other Richard I am aware of in the entire city. I have neglected to tell you up until now that I was wearing the mandatory face mask, because it would be like saying that I was wearing trousers and a shirt. But after explaining to her that I was not her intended Richard, I took a step back, held my breath and dropped my mask just for a second. She was visibly taken aback to discover that while from the eyes-up we may have shared characteristics, from the nose down the two Richards were not related.
When I recounted the story to my wife, Cheryl, who has been introduced to the other Richard, she could understand the lady’s confusion, noting a certain similarity.
The corona age has forced us to socially distance and shroud much of our identities. It turns out that we cannot even rely on our names to define us anymore. Our unintended disguise has resulted in alienation, misunderstanding, confusion and embarrassment. So many of our emotions and feelings are now veiled as we discover the fundamental importance of full facial expression in social interaction. While language is our primary medium of communication, crucial context and meaning is added by a grin or a grimace, a sulky pout or a wide beam. As writer Arlin Cuncic says, if you only listen to what a person says and ignore what that person’s face is telling you, then you really only have half the story.
It turns out that more than appearances being deceiving, they are revealing. As a communal species, that revelation is essential for our personal and collective wellbeing. Here’s hoping that the vaccine becomes widespread soon so that we can finally let down our masks and reconnect fully with our families, friends, colleagues and indeed the strangers who enhance our lives just by smiling as they pass us by.
The writer, whose middle name is Sloan, is unaware of anyone on Earth with the same full name, and he does not have any vested interest in the Emmanuel Gift Store.