Tips for Communicating with Face Masks

Tips for Communicating with Face Masks
Dr. Steinberg

Face masks have become a necessary part of what we wear on a daily basis. You may find yourself wearing a mask for several hours every day as you navigate public spaces. An important safety measure, masks have been long required in most places to prevent contracting and spreading Covid19. This essential precaution, while protecting health as much as possible, can present specific challenges for people with impaired hearing. You have likely experienced more challenges to hearing well with masks which can make sound unclear.  But there are a few tips you can integrate to enhance communication while wearing face masks.  

Impact of Face Masks on Communication

Face masks affect sound quality in ways that make it more difficult to hear. This is particularly challenging for people who already experience a reduced capacity to absorb and process sound. People with hearing loss typically use different strategies to maximize their hearing and face masks can block those strategies. The most significant ways that face masks do this is by: 

  • Covered Mouth: The most obvious challenge of face masks is that they fully cover the mouth. Without the mouth being visible, people are not able to lip read which is a useful strategy that people (especially people with hearing loss) use to distinguish individual words. This helps people follow a conversation and understand what is being said. Face masks prevent this kind of reading which is an important way that conversations are more accessible. 
  • Muffles Sound: another major way that face masks impact communication is that they muffle sound – or quite literally, masks sound. Material worn over the mouth limits how much the mouth is able to move. This restriction of movement can prevent words from being annunciated fully. Additionally, masks distort sound, making words unclear and difficult to hear. 

These key effects of face masks on communication can amplify already existing challenges. For example, background noise is always a challenge to contend with. Noisier settings can often be distracting and provide competing noise for the brain to also process. Not being able to read lips and trying to hear through masks while potentially in an environment with background noise can be overwhelming to navigate. This can contribute to confusion, fatigue, and unpleasant interactions. But there are ways to alleviate this impact and strengthen communication. 

Tips for Communicating with Face Masks

There are simple practices that you can apply to maximize your hearing while wearing a face mask and having conversations with others. A few useful tips include the following: 

  • Wear a Comfortable Mask: there is now such a wide range of masks, from standard medical masks to cloth masks with fun patterns. You want to ensure that the masks you wear fit you comfortably. They should not be too tight and should feel comfortable on your face and around your ears. When masks are too tight, this restricts mouth movement even more which contributes to distorting sound. 
  • Reduce Background Noise: being in quieter settings can help you focus on the conversation you are having much more easily. You can reduce background noise by avoiding noisy environments (restaurants, bars, larger venues), avoiding peak hours, opting for quiet places, being intentional about seating, turning off any noisy household appliances, not playing music or television in the background, rolling up windows if you are having a conversation in a car etc. 
  • Exaggerate Other Nonverbal Cues: since face masks prevent lip reading, exaggerating other nonverbal cues is a great way to provide context and help others to follow the conversation. This could look like using more hand gestures, eyebrow movements, head nods etc. 
  • Avoid Multitasking: it is common to multitask during a conversation – texting, cooking, cleaning etc. but this can be really distracting. Multitasking can create more noise and prevents people from being completely present. So avoid multitasking and be fully available for the conversation!
  • Speak Slower: to deal with masks slurring and muffling sounds, you can speak a little more slowly to ensure that you are completely annunciating which can help with the sound quality. 

Face masks are a necessity and by practicing these strategies, you can enhance communication and navigate conversations with greater ease.  

If you have experienced difficulty with hearing, it is important to schedule a hearing test. Contact us today to learn more about our comprehensive hearing health services!