Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us have had the experience of talking to a neighbor, friend, or family member with a mask covering our nose and mouth. While wearing a mask has become commonplace for most of us, we can also see that wearing one does impact our communication. To mitigate this, let’s focus on these two questions: How exactly is communication affected, and what can we do to improve it while continuing to wear a mask?

Communication includes both verbal and nonverbal language. This includes the words we say as well as our tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, and the body postures we make. Masks impact both verbal and nonverbal communication. When we talk and listen, we rely on what we see as well as what we hear. We watch people’s faces for cues to their emotions, and we watch people’s mouths to better understand what they are saying. We listen for tone of voice and watch for subtle facial changes such as blushing, or even micro expressions to further process someone’s message. This is the information that masks hinder. Remember, too, that people who are hearing impaired are most impacted by these changes.

Communication impact:

  • They remove visual, nonverbal cues for listeners such as smiles and frowns
  • Dampen the volume of our voices and the quality of our speech
  • Impact our ability to hear the variation in tone of voice

Tips to improve communication while wearing a face-covering:

  • Face the person you are speaking to. If you are facing your communication partner, they will be able to get the most verbal and nonverbal information from you. This will improve their ability to process what you are saying and how you are feeling. 
  • Be sure you have the listener’s attention before speaking. 
  • Speak louder and slower than you normally would. This doesn’t mean you need to yell, but increasing your volume can improve your ability to be heard. Speaking slightly slower than usual allows the other person to process what they heard. 
  • Use gestures and body language. Your gestures and body posture are both nonverbal cues that remain visible while masked. Given social distancing, you may have to exaggerate these gestures to be better understood. 
  • Move to a quiet space, if possible. If you are outside be aware of environmental noises that may further impact your communication. 
  • Use a clear mask if available. For individuals with hearing loss, increased volume may not be enough to ensure understanding. With a clear mask, they have access to the movements of your mouth to increase their ability to understand you. 
  • Use pictures or visuals, if available, so that the other person knows the topic. This can be as simple as sharing pictures on your phone, for context. 
  • Check for understanding. Ask questions such as ‘Can you hear me?’ ‘Could you understand that?’ ‘Did that make sense?’
  • Verbalize your feelings and facial expressions. Statements such as ‘I’m happy to see you!’ and ‘That made me smile’ can help others understand your emotions.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask how you can improve communication for the listener. 
  • If your partner doesn’t understand you, try rephrasing what you said rather than repeating yourself.

Masks are important to slow the spread of COVID-19 and they have become a part of everyday life for most of us. It is important to remember that we can still communicate effectively while wearing masks – we just need to be prepared to make adjustments.

Cocoa Berry
Author: Cocoa Berry