The coronavirus has revealed a lot about society, not all of which is good. But one positive aspect of the human psyche that we’ve been looking at up close this year is our capacity for adaptation. In early March, it would have been unimaginable for so much of the population to wear masks (with the exception of many Asian countries, where it’s been the norm to wear one when you think you might be sick for decades). But now, putting on a mask has become part of our routine for leaving the house. Phone, keys, wallet, mask. We’re not here to talk about the many, many benefits of wearing a mask, though. This is about one of the downsides: that masks make communication more difficult.
You probably don’t need to be told that masks have impeded your conversations to some extent. Whether it’s with a friend or a barista, you’ve probably found yourself saying “what?” a little more often than usual. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate this problem, and it all comes back to adaptability. Here are a few of the biggest issues that are causing miscommunication, and some ways to tackle them.
The most obvious effect of wearing a mask is that it creates a barrier between your mouth and other people. A piece of cloth, though, really doesn’t do too much to block sound. We won’t say it doesn’t matter at all, but if you sound muffled, it probably isn’t because the mask is actively blocking sound.
Far more likely is that the mask is changing the way you’re talking. When masks don’t fit right, you might be forced to adjust the way you’re moving your mouth to keep it from slipping below your nose. Consciously or not, you may be opening your mouth less or moving your lips in unconventional ways. It’s this alteration that makes your voice sound less distinct.
Solutions: Try a new mask. If the one you’re wearing is a struggle to keep on your face, or if the material is so thick it’s impossible to talk through, find another option that works for you.
Fewer Emotional Cues
It’s honestly pretty nice to walk around with a mask and not need to smile all the time, but it’s also another way that masks make communication more difficult. Body language and facial cues have an impact on our ability to converse with others. And when you’re wearing a mask, you’re taking away about 50 percent of your face. That means you’re losing some of your expressiveness.
Solution: Earlier this year, Babbel sociolinguistics expert Jennifer Dorman gave tips on how to communicate more easily when you’re on a video call. While the challenges of masks and video calls are slightly different, there is some overlap.
One piece of advice is to exaggerate your gestures. You can’t use your mouth to convey your emotions, so you can try to use your eyes, eyebrows, arms or anything else to get your point across more clearly.
Another is to speak more dramatically. You don’t necessarily have to turn into a Shakespearean actor, but speaking louder and with more emotion can be a good way to make up for the lack of visible smiles and frowns. Talking with some dramatic flair can also generally make what you’re saying easier to understand. Remember your vocal exercises: diction is done with the tip of the tongue and the teeth.
No Lip Reading
You might think that understanding someone is only about clearly hearing what they’re saying. That is a big part of it, but there’s another factor: seeing what they’re saying. You likely have no idea you’re doing it, but when someone is talking, you’re looking at their lips to help understand what they’re saying.
A famous instance of this is the linguistic phenomenon called the McGurk effect. This is when a single vocal sound is paired with two different videos of someone speaking. A famous illustration is shown in the video below (which you should watch if you can, it’s really mind-bending). In the video, the sound “ba” is played over and over. The visual element, however, changes, so sometimes the guy looks like he’s saying “ba” and sometimes he looks like he’s saying “fa.” When you hear the “ba” audio matched with the “ba” video, you’ll hear “ba,” but when you see it matched with the “fa” video, you’ll see “fa.”
What does that mean? When you’re talking to someone, you’re using visual cues to determine what they’re saying. So if you’re wearing a mask, that ability goes away. The effect isn’t massive, certainly. You hear people talking without seeing their faces all the time, whether it’s in podcasts or on the phone or if they’re simply in another room. But when you’re having a face-to-face conversation, it could be enough to trip you up from time to time.
Solution: The best thing you can do to make it easier for other people to understand you better is try talking a little slower, a little louder and with more enunciation. You don’t have to go to such extremes that it sounds like you’re being condescending, but making your voice easier to hear will help others.
While everyone lip reads to some extent, there’s also a whole community of deaf or hard-of-hearing people who rely much more heavily on lip reading. If you or someone in your life needs these visual cues — or if you interact with an array of strangers for one reason or another — it’s worth it to invest in a see-through mask. They’re relatively affordable, and there are lots of different styles. You can find the one that works best for you.
Communication, as always, is a two-way street. Masks are here to stay for the time being, and it’s possible people will continue to use them even after the current pandemic is over. The best we can do when masks make communication more difficult is try our best to be patient and understanding when we’re talking to people. This year has been challenging in many ways, and being there for each other is more important than ever.