A Plea to Ban Masks from Business Meetings

People were meant to see each other’s faces, not hide behind a mask.

It’s not a matter of just being used to seeing each other; it’s a basic instinct of our natures.

You want to see who you are dealing with, and the human face – all of the face — tells you about the person.

Even in zoom or go-to-meetings where cameras are turned on, seeing a human face you are dealing with brings you the clues necessary to understand that person and the business at hand.

Nothing is more expressive…nothing more revealing.

Take the smile. Or the non-smile. When you throw out an idea in a business meeting and people wear masks, all ideas become expressionless statements.

Early in my career I was at an executive meeting, and the executives wore what at the time was the “executive look” – an expressionless stare with vacant eyes, no smile or indication they are even listening.

Now, with the mask, everyone has that stare.

At my first meeting in four months with a brand new client, I wore a mask. We all wore masks. We wanted to practice safety, and feel safe.

When the client initially asked if I would mind coming out to see them after having had two online meetings, I said, “Are you kidding? I’m not afraid of any virus.”

“Well we are,” said the client.

“Then I’ll wear three masks,” I replied, and we set up the meeting for a couple of weeks later.

I purchased a digital thermometer to take my temperature when I walked in.

“That’s a great idea,” said another client I told about my plan on visiting. “You’ll show them that you care.”

Which I did. But I was hoping to do away with the masks.

When I showed up, the thermometer wasn’t enough. I was asked to put on the mask.

So I did.

For two hours, we discussed the direction we should be taking with the marketing, The client had questions…statements…I offered some answers…made statements. . It was like other great meetings I’ve had over the years. Except it wasn’t. Something was different.

When a discussion ensued about handling leads from the upcoming marketing activities, and whether to direct the order to a distributor or take the order themselves. I said, “Why don’t you let the caller decide and ask him.” The president said, “That’s why you’re here,” and took a note.

That’s why I was there – to offer the outside point of view as I’ve done for the past 30 years. I’ve always been on the outside; that is the primary reason our clients use our organization. We think differently. And we get results.

But something was different about this meeting. As great as the idea exchange was, there was just something.

Wearing masks changed the entire atmosphere. You could feel it around the table despite the excellent discussion.

The fact is, how do you trust or gain trust with someone wearing a mask?

A mask is going to have a profound negative effect on the trust process. Without being able to see the person – and have the person see you — the ideas put forth will all come from behind masks.

Disguised, flat, missing some of the real meaning which facial expressions lend to the words. The human expression, which has always given energy to dialogue, will be gone. And wearing masks has brought out just how much of the meaning of words is enhanced by expressions in the face.

And while there is a certain truth expressed by our client that day – being together in a room physically, there’s nothing like it – wearing masks defeats the full realization of the idea exchange.

I wasn’t alone in this feeling that day. Privately, some of the attendees said quietly when I brought up my feelings about masks as I left, “I hate this too.”

In fact, when I followed up by phone the next day, the President also agreed: “Salesmen like us really need that face-to-face, not mask-to-mask.”

Let’s hope we can somehow overcome this mask-thing, this fear, maybe even invent a see-through mask.

In my live webinar two days before this meeting (the topic was on how to target and hit the right customer, special COVID-19 edition), one of the questions was: “My leadership is waiting for things to get back to “normal”.  How do I leverage the Covid to get them to Flip the Switch, change strategy to the new normal?”

I answered that there is no such thing as “new normal” much less “normal.” I said, “Things will never be normal, and as far as new normal, the word ‘new’ is an adjective modifying ‘normal.’ So if it is not normal, it is abnormal. Welcome to today’s business climate!”

To which he responded, “Amen…. I’m headed to a corporate meeting.  Talk to you later the next 48 hours.”

Hope he took his mask.

For more insights follow interlinejim@twitter

7 thoughts on “A Plea to Ban Masks from Business Meetings

  1. Unfortunately, the cost of shutting down the virus isn’t paid by people having a few awkward meetings. The real costs land on the people getting furloughed, laid off, whose businesses are shut down by the government, who are being told, “You’re not allowed to go out and earn your living.” These people have much bigger problems than whether or not to wear a mask.

    Jim, your client touched on the key truth: Wearing a mask “shows you care”. We’ve turned mask-wearing into a symbol, a signal to the world about how righteous and caring we are. Never mind whether or not the mask we’re wearing is actually doing a bit of good. A bunch of healthy people sitting around a conference table goggling at each other over masks helps precisely nobody.

    Somehow we’ve got to abandon the virtue-signaling and get to some common sense around mask-wearing. In countries where the practice has been common for years, people who have had symptoms wear masks to let others know to keep their distance or approach cautiously. We should adopt a similar attitude. If you’re getting over a cold, woke up with a headache or a sore throat, or have been around someone with symptoms, by all means wear a mask to protect others. It’s the responsible thing to do. If you’re in an at-risk category, you should also probably wear a mask to protect yourself. Mask-wearing in these circumstances sends a useful signal to those around you.

    But when we ALL wear masks, nobody knows who might be infected or at-risk, and we all start treating each other like super-spreaders. Ordinary human relations break apart, and nobody trusts anybody any more. In the long run, that’s more unhealthy than any virus.

  2. I’ve been freelance since May 2011 and have probably attended less than two dozen in-person meetings during the entire time. My natural ‘loner’ personality lends itself to conference calls and Zoom meetings more than face-to-face, but that’s me. I don’t go to meetings to talk…I go to meetings to listen. (I’m a terrible salesperson as a result, lol, but clients forgive me because I deliver what they pay me to deliver consistently.) All that aside, I agree with you…masks hinder human-to-human communications which even under ideal conditions are always imperfect. That Dilbert comic, tho… 😉

    1. Amy, nice to hear from you and glad the post sparked response! You have ALWAYS been a good listener! I was at a meeting several years ago where a sales trainer (top gun guy) asked if you can be 100% listener. Everyone in the room said no, except me. Then he asked, “Why is Jim right?” Listening is a skill that requires ongoing practice…but it is the basis of all sales. The best sales people do more listening than talking, and that’s a fact. Stay safe!!

  3. I have seen see through masks marketed towards the deaf community, which is great.

    It isn’t fear we need to overcome, but the virus. If the cost of shutting the virus down more quickly is some slightly-off meetings for a while, we need to belly up and pay that price. Figure out new ways to communicate. Get used to half a face. Meet virtually. Or whatever other ways we can figure out to avoid becoming unwitting vectors.

    It’s not great, but it’s better than accidentally killing your clients.

    Personally I’ve seen my clients in person exactly once since 2015 and I still feel we have genuine, warm relationships featuring effective empathetic communication.

    1. Always good to hear from you Karen! Your business model is different. You sell software. You’ve been virtual pre-COVID-19 so you didn’t miss a beat. Our model is different; face-to-face is essential. And I’m all for finding other ways to communicate (I know you know that). But the virus spawns fear, and fear kills business. We will eventually find a vaccine for the virus, but what is the vaccine for fear? I would never put anyone (including my clients) in jeopardy knowingly or unknowingly, which is why I wore the mask and bought the thermometer. Yes, I practice social distancing and everything else. Maybe I’m just venting, because living in a jar and connecting to the internet is not living is it?

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