Blog post

How to encourage strangers to wear a face covering

Dr Fiona Holland, Senior Lecturer in Psychology & Behaviour Change and Dr Jenny Lunt, Lecturer in Health Psychology at the University of Derby, give their top tips on encouraging strangers to wear a face covering.

By Dr Fiona Holland - 24 July 2020

From today (Friday July 24), wearing face coverings will be mandatory in shops. It is increasingly clear that face coverings help prevent Covid-19 transmission and are particularly important in enclosed spaces and where social distancing is not possible, but current advice focuses on the 'how to' of wearing face coverings, not what to do and say if people fail to wear them.

In the UK, our cultural ‘mind my own business’ tendency can mean that people are reluctant to question others or be seen to criticise others. We might ask ourselves: is it worth it? Why should I interfere? Evidence on the ‘bystander effect’ within social psychology indicates that we often assume that someone else will take responsibility for a public situation, meaning that, ultimately, no one does.

If mask wearing is to become part of everyday life (a social norm), framing this behaviour as a way of being a ‘good citizen’ is recommended. We will all then need to be prepared to both challenge people who are not wearing them, and be challenged when we forget to wear ours, as human error is inevitable.

Psychologists have shown us that our self-confidence in adopting new behaviours can be boosted if we know the details of what to do, and see others modelling them. Similarly, studies from the Health and Safety field have had some success in encouraging workers to not ‘walk-by’ whenever they witness unsafe behaviour. So, how does this help us? How can one member of the public encourage a stranger to wear a face mask either via a conversation (if close enough to be heard), or at a distance (when out of earshot)?

The conversation

For the conversation, we want to avoid being perceived as confrontational and risk receiving an aggressive response due to the individual feeling disrespected, so our attitude matters. We also need to avoid making any assumptions; the other person may have legitimate reasons for not wearing a mask (e.g. medical advice, for mental health reasons or because they need to be lip read). We should try to avoid reacting to any initial signs of hostility to prevent any escalation in emotions. Our body language will therefore need to be neutral to mirror a calm, non-confrontational mindset throughout the interaction, regardless of how the non-mask wearer responds.

Once we engage in conversation, we are unlikely to be in a position to negotiate or debate mask-wearing beliefs. We might not have the time or feel sufficiently safe to do so. So, we need to be specific about the desired action. At the same time, we should prompt some degree of attitude change by the non-mask wearer through encouraging consideration of potential knock-on effects of their behaviour on others.

In short, our verbal and non-verbal approach to the conversation will need to be non-judgmental, empathic (open to their experience), directive, yet respectful. To cover all these the bases, we suggest that the conversation could proceed along the following lines, captured by the acronym ‘BASCCAT”:

  1. Breath & Body: As preparation, take a breath to maintain calmness. Adopt a non-aggressive pose (stand at an angle, keep arms down, avoid finger-pointing or having your arms crossed).
  2. Attitude: Adopt a calm non-judgmental mindset. Be aware that there may be good reasons for not wearing a mask.
  3. State the obvious: Express it as a factual observation to help keep the interaction non-confrontational. Deliver this is a neutral tone. For example: “I see that you are not wearing a mask”.
  4. Check: Check if there is a legitimate reason by asking “have you been advised not to wear a mask?” Keep it a closed question to avoid triggering debate. If the answer is yes, acknowledge this, for example: “OK, in that case, I’m sorry to trouble you.”
  5. Concern: If a legitimate reason is not apparent, firstly convey respect, e.g. “I know we must all make our own decisions”, and then state why you have approached them (try to use AND rather than BUT as your linking word): “AND I’m concerned about my family/my health/ the health of others in this shop”
  6. Ask: Direct mask-wearing behaviour by asking: “Do you think you could put one on?’. [If they indicate that they don’t have one, advise where one can be obtained, e.g. at the shop entrance, online, in chemists etc. depending on which applies in that context].
  7. Thank them if they do as requested. Close the interaction with appreciation.

If they do not, then just move away to protect yourself.

At a distance

There may be some situations where it is necessary to prompt face masking or social distancing without being close enough to do so via a conversation. In these cases, some standard gestures could serve the same purpose if conducted with the same attitude as above. For example, to prompt the wearing of a face mask we could:

  1. Point to your own mask
  2. Then provide a thumbs-up as a way of indicating thank you.

Similarly, for social distancing we could:

  1. Hold the palm of our hand forward and up towards the person that is too close, or hold our arms out either side of our body if between people that are too close
  2. Use the thumbs up or say thank you to close the interaction.

We recommend some standard gestures should be adopted as these convey meaning that everyone can understand and yet also convey respect.

As stated within the Independent Sage Committee’s report on face coverings, such strategies can only be taken forward if undertaken in partnership with the public. We hope that using evidence from psychology, behavioural science, and other fields, helps to encourage the uptake and normalisation of wearing face coverings and complements the current advice on ‘how to’ wear coverings.

We’d love to hear about your interactions with others and your experiences of using BASCCAT as a guide. Please share your experiences in the comments section below in encouraging or being encouraged to wear face coverings or social distancing and help accelerate the acceptance and uptake of these behaviours.

For further information contact the Corporate Communications team at or call 01332 593953.

About the author

Woman smiling, wearing glasses

Dr Fiona Holland
Senior Lecturer, Psychology

Dr Fiona Holland leads the health and well-being pathway on the MSc Behaviour Change and also teaches on the undergraduate Psychology degree and on the MSc Health Psychology. Fiona also leads on academic enterprise for the department, teaching workshops in Motivational Interviewing and Qualitative Research Methods, and is involved in consultancy projects.

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