The good news about wearing masks to combat COVID is that many of us have personalized them allowing for individual expression, be it a statement through words or art. And though they can’t cover up your bad hair day, they can cover up your smirk when your someone says something absurd.
The bad news is that masks often cause frustration and misunderstandings from not being able to hear what a person is trying to say; or perhaps worse, misunderstanding the speaker’s intended words and meaning, and therefore getting the wrong message. This problem has always been true for people with hearing loss—and even more difficult for them now—and frankly for every one dealing with conversations behind masks. Our masks not only muffle sound, they visually hide the mouth. It’s not just those with hearing loss that count on reading lips, we all lip read to some extent.
A mask creates a barrier to the sound waves from the speaker to the listener. Especially with the sounds of the “s,” “f,” and the ‘sh” and “th” combinations. A masked talker could be trying to say, “And you’re worth it,” but be heard by the listener as saying, “And you’re the worst of it.” (Picture this misinterpretation with your boss or your girlfriend.)
Masks, when worn properly over the nose, cover more than half of your face. It hides much of the facial clues to what you are trying to get across, making it difficult for your listener to get the emotional content of what you are trying to say. For instance, does the response “fine,” mean: “I’m good with it, let’s do it;” or does it imply: “it’ll do, if you can’t do any better.” It would be difficult to know, given much of your facial expression being covered with a mask, and the muffled tone coming through the mask. (Again, think of your loved one or your boss in this situation.)
Okay, so how can you keep your life from constant misunderstanding and friction. Here are a few tips to mitigate the negative effects of mask wearing:
1. Take time when you speak, don’t rush your words. Slow down, put space between your words, giving the listener a better chance to keep up with you, get your meaning.
2. Speak in a normal and level tone, don’t shout. Shouting distorts your words and emotionally suggests irritation and/or anger.
3. Pause when appropriate. Pausing helps the listener understand what you are saying, and it allows you to have better breath support for speaking.
4. Consider the environment. A noisy background always makes hearing more difficult, as well as distracting. This is true not just to the listener but to you the speaker as well, often making both parties feel irritable—not good for productive and good outcome communication.
5. Ask follow up questions that will give you a good indication that the listener understood what you said. Oftentimes, people will nod and smile even when they don’t understand—or think they understand, but in fact don’t.
In these days of wearing masks, we are all having to work harder at being understood. Being more cognizant of and implementing what we can do to be more clearly understood will help us through this time. It will also make us better communicators with people with hearing loss as well as folks who have difficulty with understanding because they speak English as a second language.