Listen to the audio version of this post here.
Maybe you believe anyone out and about without a face covering is selfish to the point of being a public menace.
Or maybe you’re mocking those mask-wearing “sheeple.”
However you feel about face masks, they’re required in many places now. And there’s no doubt they make communication more challenging. How do you get your message across when half your face is hidden?
With some extra effort, that’s how.
When we put on our masks, we need to make some adjustments in the way we speak if we want people to hear us and understand us, much less agree with us.
Pump up the volume.
A piece of cloth in front of your face naturally reduces the sound people hear. If you speak at your typical volume, they’re likely to miss a good bit of what you say.
You’ll need to project, as if you’re talking to someone even more than six feet away. To do that, ground yourself firmly, breathe deeply, and let the energy come from your core. If you speak from just your head or throat, the sound won’t make it much past the mask.
Yes, when we speak with more force, we produce more of those dreaded droplets. (That’s why noisy work environments and church choirs became contagion hotbeds.) Good thing we’re wearing masks, isn’t it?
Cut down the verbiage.
Short, declarative sentences followed by a pause make it easier to get your point across. Many people sort of trail off as they keep talking—it gets harder and harder to hear and understand them.
Instead, focus on saying just what you need to say and putting a period on it. You’ll know soon enough if the other person got your message.
Vary your tonality.
Human beings differ in how naturally expressive we are. Some speak in a near monotone … others sound almost theatrical … and there’s a whole spectrum in between.
Wherever your speaking style lands on that spectrum, see if you can crank it up a notch from your norm. The mask will muffle you enough that a little extra pizzazz won’t sound phony. It will make you more interesting and engaging, and it’ll increase the chances you’ll make the point you hoped to make.
Talk with your hands as well as your mouth.
We use gesture to convey information or drive home a point, to amplify or clarify what we’re saying, sometimes to replace words altogether. (A shrug will tell you, without any words at all, “I don’t know the answer to your question.”)
Some of us “talk with our hands” more than others; there are all kinds of ethnic stereotypes about that. My sense is that the variation is more individual than related to nationality.
Either way, gestures become even more important when words are difficult to hear or understand.
Consider increasing the frequency and intensity of your gestures when you’re speaking with your mouth covered. It will give the person additional clues to make your meaning clearer.
The eyes (still) have it.
As a communication consultant, I tell clients all the time that eye contact is one of the most powerful tools they have for self-expression. It becomes even more important when the rest of your face is hidden.
Making steady, direct eye contact will convey your interest in the other person, the connection you seek and confidence in yourself. To say nothing of making you more trustworthy, even if you have covered half your face like the train-robber in some old Western.
If eye contact is a challenge for you (and it is for many) this is the time to practice so you can be more comfortable looking someone in the eye as you talk. Being at some physical distance is likely to make it a bit easier.
To make the most of eye contact, be sure to face the person full-on while you’re talking to them—and while you’re listening. We’re talking about genuine contact here, not giving them the side-eye.
But wait, there’s more.
Your feelings show up on your face automatically, especially around your mouth and eyes. With our mouths covered up, we still speak volumes with our eyes.
Lift the corners of your mouth in a natural, warm smile. We see little crinkles around your eyes. When you’re surprised, your eyebrows fly up on your forehead. And when you’re angry, those two vertical lines appear between your brows.
These micro-expressions take shape without any conscious thought on your part—and we read each other’s faces all day long. Thanks to mirror neurons, we may even begin to feel the same thing we see on someone else’s face.
You can use those same expressions intentionally to let people know how you feel, to make sure they get the right message even if what they hear is muffled or garbled by your mask.
Attend to those who can’t hear.
Masks are a barrier to communication for all of us. They’re an enormous problem for people who are hearing-impaired.
If you regularly communicate with someone who depends on lipreading, you might check out those new see-through masks. Make the most of gestures and expressions. And consider using a notepad or whiteboard to get your message across.
You may think we’re talking about a tiny minority of mostly old people? An audiologist client made a big impression on me when she explained that hearing begins to decline, slowly and gradually, when we’re in our mid-30s.
We automatically compensate by watching people more closely. Without really thinking about it, we start learning to read lips. We hear and see what they’re saying, and that helps a lot. Until everyone puts a mask over their mouths.
You can’t read their minds, but …
It will help all of us to assume positive intentions.
That person who’s squinting back at you as if you just dropped in from Mars? Maybe they’re not deliberately tuning you out—they can’t understand you.
The one who wants you to repeat your request again? Not trying to be difficult—they missed what you said.
The server who got your order wrong? They’re not stupid. They misunderstood you—and it was easy to do.
We can go a long way toward heading off those challenges as we begin to get back out into the world. Just make the extra effort to communicate clearly. And assume that everyone else is making an effort too.
Also, communicate with us by sharing your experience in a comment.
Thanks for another spot on commentary! i am absolutely wearing a mask and encourage others to do the same. It is a bit of a learning experience but worth the effort. And expressions certainly still show with or without a mask! I also understand if you have asthma, the clear face shields may work nicely for you. Be safe and well and keep smiling!!!
It IS a learning experience, Gale. I hope as we all get used to it, we can extend ourselves enough to make it easier for others to hear and understand us.
Good timely article!
Thanks, Barb! Glad you dug it.
Catherine: Great Article. Not only am I wearing a mask, I’m making them for anyone who needs 1, 2 or 10 of them! In fact, I am making them for our favorite restaurant today in clever fabric patterns.
Your communication tips are spot on and really helpful reminders of how to succeed in our ‘new normal’.
Thank you so much.
I’m still feeling my way with mask-wearing, Jenny. I haven’t been out much the past couple of months, but I’ve seen/heard enough to know that masks can be a barrier to communication if we let them be.
I’ve also learned a lesson about washing them. I put one on the other day, fresh out of the dryer. It’s now suitable for a much smaller face than mine. Oy.
The Time of Virus has been for me, an excellent opportunity to be able to wear my respirator in public. In addition to being, perhaps, more comfortable than a mask, it is most valuable for frightening small children and intimidating the mask less. Breathing, sounding like Darth Vader, would be a welcome addition however that has this far escaped by talents.
Great article Catherine. I’ll be forwarding to my coworkers, and my hearing impaired sister who leads union negotiation meetings.
Thanks, Linda. Love it when an article’s worth passing on. Your sister has her work cut out for her these days!