Clear Communication While Wearing a Face Covering

While medical professionals have long been accustomed to wearing a mask, these days the majority of us are adjusting to mask wearing, as well. Epidemiologists continue to confirm that wearing a mask is one of the best ways to protect against COVID-19. We now know that when we wear a mask, we not only protect others from exposure to the coronavirus, but we also reduce our own risk, perhaps by 65%. And other new studies suggest that even if we are exposed to the virus, a mask can reduce the amount of virus that gets into our body, allowing our immune system to put up a more effective fight.

So by now, masks have become a part of everyday life. By now maybe you’ve amassed a wardrobe of fashionable, well-fitting face coverings, and putting one on is a matter of habit. But masks do present certain challenges, and one of those is communication.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Face coverings can muffle sound. They can also hide important clues about the speaker’s message and emotions. This can make it hard to understand speech.”

When we talk in person, we rely not only on the words we hear, but on the person’s facial expression. It can be harder to understand and interpret what a person wearing a mask is saying—especially if they are, as recommended, six feet away! “Are you kidding or serious?” we might ask, without our usual visual cues.

For people with hearing loss, this is especially challenging. Almost everyone reads lips to a certain extent. For people with hearing loss—which includes half of all seniors older than 75–lip-reading is usually a very important tool for spoken communication.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) offers these tips for improving communication while protecting ourselves with a mask:

  • Be aware. Does the person you’re talking to seem to have trouble understanding you? Ask them.
  • Be patient. Face coverings block visual cues and dampen sounds, which can make communication frustrating.
  • Be loud and clear. Don’t shout, but speak more loudly than you normally would. Speak clearly—enunciate more than you usually do. Confirm that the person understands you, and repeat if necessary.
  • Factor in the distance. Social distancing keeps us safe, but also makes sounds harder to hear and visual cues harder to see. The farther away you are, the louder, slower and more clearly you may need to speak.
  • Turn down the background volume. If you’re not able to do that, move to a quieter spot. Music, crowds and even a fountain in the park can drown out sounds.
  • Communicate another way. Write things down on paper or a whiteboard, or use a smartphone talk-to-text app.
  • If you have hearing loss, make that known. Ask the person you’re communicating with to speak louder. If you lip-read, ask people with whom you regularly interact to wear a clear face covering.
  • Bring a friend. If you have trouble hearing, ask a family member or friend to come with you to doctor appointments and other important engagements—preferably someone from your household who can get close enough to you to hear you and tell you what others are saying.

“When it is harder to understand speech—whether because of cloth face coverings, distance, or other factors—research suggests that we have fewer cognitive resources to process information deeply. As a result, communication suffers, and feelings of stress and isolation may increase,” says NIDCD Director Debara L. Tucci. “These difficult times offer all of us the opportunity to be mindful about communication. It will require extra effort. I encourage everyone to meet these challenges with patience, kindness, and a commitment to problem-solving.”

Source: IlluminAge with information from the National Institutes of Health. 

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor or hearing specialist if you have questions.