Tips for Communicating with Face Masks

In Communication, Hearing Loss by Jennifer G. Mayer, Au.D., CCC-A

Jennifer G. Mayer, Au.D., CCC-A
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Now that we have been wearing face masks for some time, each of us has had a moment when communication became difficult. Whether your encounter was at the grocery store, gas station, or in conversation with a friend, family member, or loved one, face masks can obscure the communication process just enough to make it difficult. 

Those who have trouble hearing face an added challenge. Whether due to mild hearing loss or more severe hearing impairment, we rely on a complex combination of sensory input to make sense of face-to-face communication. Indeed much of this information is from hearing what a person has to say, and face masks can muffle speech in ways that make it difficult to capture that audible information. 

However, we also use visual clues to piece together the meaning of a conversation. Facial expressions are incredibly useful tools to contextualize speech, helping us understand not only the basic meaning of phrases but also to identify humor. Without facial expressions to offer context clues for a conversation, we are almost in need of clarification emoticons that are useful in text messaging! Add to this complicated nexus of factors the principle of social distancing. 

When we place 6 feet of distance between ourselves and others, that space is a chasm that sound must cross in order to be heard. In the absence of these precautions, standing close to a person with hearing loss is a good assistive technique, but social distancing makes that proximity impossible. 

The following tips can make communication easier for all parties involved while you are wearing a face mask. These tips will be particularly useful for those with hearing loss or hearing impairment, so be sure to follow these guidelines as a way to accommodate those around you with a diversity of hearing needs. 

How to Effectively Communicate while Wearing a Face Mask

The first principle of communication with face masks is to make sure you have a person’s attention before speaking. You might want to signal or gesture with your hands before beginning a conversation. Missing out on the beginnings of phrases is one of the challenges posed by the face mask, so you might want to say a clear greeting before asking a question or making a statement to another person. Looking in the direction of this other person helps you project your speech in their direction rather than going off into another space. 

Sound waves are directional vibrations of pressure, and you can assist the process by facing directly toward a person when you speak. When it comes to actual speech, it helps to speak a little bit slower and a little bit louder. You don’t need to shout or exaggerate your speech, but the brain does need assistance identifying when a word stops and the next one begins. A little added volume goes a long way to make up for the muffling effect of a face mask. Gestures can help assist in meaning-making, as well, so feel free to talk with your hands!

What if Communication Breaks Down While Wearing a Face Mask?

If you find that you are not able to communicate with the mask, you might want to seek a better communication context. Perhaps going outside, standing 6 feet apart, and removing your masks is a better option. The outdoor sounds might be louder, but you can overcome the muffling effect by finding a location in which it is safe to remove your mask. 

Wearing a mask in another quiet place indoors might do the trick, as well. Accommodation is a process that requires attention, communication, and generous responsiveness, so you can simply ask a person with hearing loss what would make it easier for them to understand you. You might find it’s as simple as speaking louder, or the person with hearing loss or impairment might prefer if you write down what you have to say in very difficult circumstances. 

If you follow these general principles, you should have no problem at all learning to communicate while wearing a face mask. Personal protective equipment is non-negotiable in the COVID-19 world, and we are all working together to create a context for health, safety, and community solidarity as we face these challenges. 

If you’ve been struggling to hear, it is important to seek treatment. Contact us today to schedule an appointment for a hearing test!