I live in New York City — The Big Apple! One of the largest cities in the world! — and also the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

As such, I’ve been wearing a mask daily for the past 2-ish months when I go outside. I have no problem with it personally. But communicating basic things to others —that would be handled via facial expressions and such — sometimes is a problem. Like if I am going into a store I make sure to say hello to staff on the floor or behind the counter and sometimes wave my hand at them.

But other times — such as if I am outside my building in the evening when it’s dark — I want to be able to indicate “Hey! I’m cool! Don’t worry!” to people I might pass on the street. Or do the two finger peace sign — sometimes referred to as the V-sign in Japan — or just do a quick salute.

Many times I simply put my hand out — no wave, but similar to the quick gesture one makes if a car lets you pass — but are there other gestures out there that are quick, easy and appropriate?

The desire is to avoid (potential and inadvertent) conflict while wearing a mask that — under other circumstances — might make it seem like you are hiding something or are about to rob someone. I mean, a person walking down the street at night wearing a mask is not exact a friendly image.

FWIW, most people I have interacted with under COVD-19 conditions have been cool and fine, but there is always an undercurrent of tension because of everything nowadays.

  • 2
    I'm not sure what exactly your intention is. Most people I encounter in stores or other public buildings wear a face mask as well. It's true that the simple gesture of smiling at someone is lost, but I never felt someone was hiding something or being shady or wanting conflict. Could you please elaborate what you want to communicate or which situations you want to defuse?
    – Elmy
    May 31, 2020 at 15:31

1 Answer 1


I believe the examples you've given this far mostly boils down to non-verbal communication like your posture, body language, how you move and where you walk.

In these times everybody knows why you're wearing a mask, so it's likely other things you communicate that runs the risk of raising unnecessary caution in others. Generally speaking, if you are in a place where the purpose is obvious, like a public waiting room, a bank or a store, people will not mind if you're wearing a mask.

The more cautionary situations are likely the ones when/where it's not obvious why you're there, for instance walking down the street, or if you're waiting for someone in a public area. Even though it may seem absurd, other people have no idea about who you are or what your intentions are (just like you imply in your question).

Here are some examples on the top of my head. They may vary a bit depending on context, and are meant as pointers, not a must-do-list:

If you're behind someone, give them the opportunity to gain a distance from you if they need to, or even cross to the other side of the street, to avoid coming across as stalking the other person.

If you're approaching someone, but have no purpose for interaction:

  • You don't have to communicate at all, and a subtle nod would be the maximum amount of interaction with a stranger without being creepy (perhaps this is cultural, so context may vary). Anything more than that will run the risk of signalling that you "want something", and that may raise unnecessary caution.

  • Don't slow down, and don't speed up as it may communicate to others that you're reacting to their presence. Maintain your ordinary way of walking like you're nobody's business.

  • Don't stop in front of others unless you have an obvious intention like mailing a letter in a mailbox or entering a building. If it's not obvious why you stop, rather wait for a second until they've passed.

  • Don't look/stare at others for too long, but rather look away to communicate polite disinterest.

If you need a strangers attention:

  • Maintain a calm body language.

  • Maintain firm eye contact without staring or having shifty eyes. People may be more attentive to your eye communication since the rest of your face is covered.

  • Always approach slightly (but not directly) from the front within their field of view, without obstructing their direction forward.

  • Maintain the social distance (People will likely be extra cautious about this right now).

  • Be polite. "Excuse me" or "can i..." goes a long way.

  • Make sure you're stating your business right away, to keep others from assuming bad intentions.

  • Accept a "no", or if someone is ignoring you. Don't follow others, or try too hard for their attention as it may also raise caution.

  • Maybe a stupid question, but how do you maintain firm eye contact without staring?
    – Kat
    Jun 1, 2020 at 3:48
  • @Kat: In my mind the difference between staring and firm eye contact is one has less blinking and other other has more, natural blinking. Jun 1, 2020 at 16:20

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