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Viral Silence

Summary:
This semester I volunteered to teach both of my classes in-person.  I’ve also given four public talks in Texas, and one at GMU.  All of these venues had mask mandates.  And in each case, I noticed an eerie pattern: Almost no one talks to each other anymore!  In the past, I had to ask classes to quiet down so I could start class.  Now I usually face dead silence.  Public lecture halls used to overflow with the chatter of the crowd.  Now you can practically hear a pin drop. From what I’m told, I’m not alone.  When I talk to other faculty who teach in-person (rare, I admit), they too remark upon this viral silence. What’s the explanation?  Here are my leading candidates. 1. Health fear. People avoid talking to others because they think it increases their odds of

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This semester I volunteered to teach both of my classes in-person.  I’ve also given four public talks in Texas, and one at GMU.  All of these venues had mask mandates.  And in each case, I noticed an eerie pattern: Almost no one talks to each other anymore!  In the past, I had to ask classes to quiet down so I could start class.  Now I usually face dead silence.  Public lecture halls used to overflow with the chatter of the crowd.  Now you can practically hear a pin drop.

From what I’m told, I’m not alone.  When I talk to other faculty who teach in-person (rare, I admit), they too remark upon this viral silence.

What’s the explanation?  Here are my leading candidates.

1. Health fear. People avoid talking to others because they think it increases their odds of getting sick.  If you initiate a conversation, the other person might move closer to hear you better, or even remove his mask to speak more clearly.

2. Social anxiety. People avoid talking to others because they’re worried about upsetting others.  Maybe the other person will feel that you’re standing too close or wearing your mask improperly.  Maybe they’ll even bite your head off for your offense.

3. Poor audibility. Conversation is always a gamble.  If masks make it hard to hear and be heard, the gamble looks worse.  So fewer people place bets by opening their mouths.

4. Lack of normal social cues.  Human beings rely heavily on facial expressions to guide conversation.  So if you can’t see other people’s faces, you don’t know how to talk to each other.  This in turn usually leads to no talking at all.

5. General depression. People are so sad they don’t feel like talking.

6. The social multiplier. An extra factor to consider: Perhaps the preceding factors are all small, but when everyone has the same problem, the total effect remains enormous because humans feed off each other.  My social anxiety amplifies your social anxiety which in then further amplifies my social anxiety.

Other stories?  What’s the truth of the matter?

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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