South Korea is king of mask culture, adopting it in everyday life more than any other country. What might have started out as fine-dust protection has permeated the culture, due to the use of masks to protect against previous outbreaks of Mers and Sars. With the arrival of Covid-19, the country was never more prepared for a pandemic.
Wearing masks in South Korea is almost second nature. In the West, fashion brands are jumping on the bandwagon of mask design, making a significant contribution to changing perceptions and encouraging acceptance. But in South Korea they are more a daily accessory, rather than a fashion item.
This really typifies the core difference surrounding mask image between the East and the West. In the West, we preach openness and transparency, and often promote symbolism in which it’s the villain wearing the mask. Notions of “identity” and “security” were also raised with regard to the wearing of face coverings post 9/11. However, it is totally different in Asia, where masks have seamlessly blended into everyday life as a necessity, and using one is something of a civic duty.
Western society tends to be built on challenging the status quo, leading to a constant evolution of the system. Former US president Barack Obama recently said: “This country was founded on protest. It is called the American revolution.” Having a point of view and standing up for it has been part of our education. And questioning leadership has been useful to keep everyone in check.
In this context, I believe the face mask really highlights a fundamental difference between East and West: that mask-wearing comes down to different perspectives. Generally the West, being more self-centric, focuses on protecting the individual, whereas in the East, the necessity of wearing a mask has concentrated more on preventing harm to others. It is derived from a respectful need for the greater good.
Accordingly, when considering “the new norm” post Covid-19, we should not only focus on new contact behaviours by creating retail formulas and changing the balance between physical versus digital experiences. We also need to evaluate our perspective on seeing the world, deciding whether our cultural beliefs must be updated. This means instead of focusing on the individual, we should improve our contribution to others in handling future crisis situations.
In achieving this, we can look to Korean behaviour that has supported some momentum behind a shift away from individualism in the West. While it is so frequently assumed that Asian countries and cultures are insular and less than concerned with Western politics and society, that’s far from the case. The moves from K-pop fans to support the Black Lives Matter movement by flooding right-wing hashtags with their own memes and fancams is a recent example. Another is their under-the-radar campaign on TikTok to flood the Republican rally in Oklahoma with fake ticket requests.
Such a strong focus on supporting and working with others to improve a situation highlights that it’s possible to surmount the barriers between East and West. We can also see a move towards greater collectivism in the West in the shape of the Black Lives Matter protests. Hiding behind a mask, albeit in digital form, can be a powerful force for positive, collective action, rather than driven by more selfish, individualistic motives.
Alvin Chan is global executive creative director, integrated retail and dot com, at Cheil Worldwide.
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