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Readers Respond: What To Say If Someone Asks Why You're Wearing A Mask

In a Coronavirus FAQ last week, I reported on an encounter at an outdoor restaurant in which a stranger asked me why I was wearing a mask. "Do you think you really need it?" he wondered, even though he admitted that he was not yet fully vaccinated.

I asked various public health experts what a good reply might be. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease doctor at Stanford University, suggested I could have said: "When you have high rates of transmission of disease with high levels of spread, it makes sense to wear a mask. It can reduce the chance you'll get exposed to the virus or transmit it to others like kids or unvaccinated people."

That "why do you wear a mask" question struck a chord with our readers. Thousands of them have been asked just that. They shared their real-life answers on Facebook and Instagram. Here's a sampling.

Be honest about your own personal reasons

If somebody asks, I tell them the truth. I have cancer, I'm currently on chemo, I have no immune system and I'm protecting myself not only from COVID but a whole bunch of other things, too. Shuts them right up.

Two men have called me a sheep twice for wearing a mask. Since I was old enough to be both their grandmother, I asked them sweetly if I could have two minutes to explain. Both said yes. I think they both were ready for a fight, but they didn't get one. The first time it happened, after I got finished, the young man who asked why I was wearing a mask bought my gas for me. The second time, the young man in the pickup mumbled something along the lines of "I'm sorry" and couldn't get away from me fast enough. — Joyce Ridner

Say it's because you don't like being sick

My 9-year-old son likes to answer: "Because I hate being sick." If we are around people without masks, we leave the situation. In an elevator I would get off and take the next one or take the stairs.

We are at risk and my kids are too young to be vaccinated so they have figured out how to protect themselves. — Jennifer Crutcher

Don't respond at all

Some guy came into the entrance of the grocery store and started shouting in people's faces, "Why are you wearing masks?" and asking us where it says in the Bible you have to wear a mask.

A woman made the mistake of trying to speak to him reasonably. He started screaming in her face until [he was] escorted out of the store. There's no point in conversing with someone who is clearly looking to fight. — Melanie Zeien Bean

Keep in mind, it may be generational

I'm from a different generation. The one that had friends who got polio, smallpox, mumps and measles, for example. The one that had classmates in iron lungs. The generation that served in the military and got more than a dozen shots before getting sent somewhere nasty to do things unthinkable. So getting this vaccine and wearing a mask are trifles. — Tony Ludlow

Say it's for your protection

What I have said when others ask why I am wearing a mask: 1) To respect you. 2) Out of an abundance of caution, as my husband has to work with intubated and end-of-life COVID patients in the ICU. 3) I've never had COVID, been exposed or ever had to be tested, so it seems to be working for me and my family. — Jill Melendez

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.