We live in a masked society, literally. Face masks have become part of our daily routines. Even if we’re not masking up each time we leave the house, we’re doing the right thing by carrying a face mask on our person. It goes without saying that the face mask has availed itself in more than one way, proving its capacity to serve as a versatile accessory on the same level as sun block, sunglasses and reading glasses. In fact, its importance supersedes its peers as it’s use extends to DIY jobs, blocking out general air pollution, smog, wildfire smoke, viruses and bacteria. Then there’s the fact that people with respiratory complications can use it too, as well as cyclists and commuters. In the present day, the face mask has become everyone’s conduit to cleaner air and thus better health.
However, while the face mask has proven its mettle and solidified its place inside handbags, glove compartments and toolboxes, it still presents one challenge, and that’s its inability to showcase the full communicative intentions of its wearer. Maybe the innovative minds behind the Cambridge Mask PRO will come up with another exclusive patented design, this time around creating a see-through mesh that works just as well as their military filtration technology but allows others to see the user’s mouth and lips. In the meantime, let’s see what can be done to improve communication while wearing a face mask.
It starts with the eyes
It might sound old and cliched, but the eyes really are the windows to the soul. We may not always realise it, but we convey a lot of meaning by way of our eyes. These days communication and everyday conversations face additional challenges. Face masks, physical/social distancing and plexiglass barriers have given us much needed protection but have also come with their own set of challenges. Questions are quick to abound. What did the waiter just say? How can I be sure that the pharmacist got the spelling of my surname right? There’s a general tendency to think that lip reading is the domain of the hearing impaired, when in fact it’s something that we all do. We all monitor facial expressions and lip movements naturally, without sparing a thought, and it’s only when those cues are removed that we realise how reliant we are on them.
The good news is that there are ways and means to still achieve effective communication when wearing a face mask, and let’s be frank, in today’s modern society, face masks are a necessity. When two-thirds of your face is covered by a face mask, all that’s left at your communicative disposal are eyes and eyebrows. With that in mind, it’s recommended that you exaggerate with the top third of your face. For instance, if you make a big smile under your Cambridge Mask PRO, the next person can still see your eyes crinkling up, which gives them cues to go by.
Now let’s adjust the voice
When dealing with people who are hearing impaired, we tend to either yell or speak slowly, none of which is actually helpful, because in essence, it distorts the message you’re trying to convey. For instance, if you’re trying to say, “Hi, it’s great to see you,” but you’re shouting, by extension it will alter the way your eyes look. Thus, instead of shouting, simply raise your voice while enunciating yourself more clearly. Put another way, speak ten percent louder and ten percent slower.
Up the gestures
Non-verbal communication such as facial gestures and expressions make up for roughly 55% of communication. On the whole, body movements, eye messages and facial expressions account for non-verbal communication, and they’re an integral part of the communication process, especially when it comes to conveying emotions. It’s important to point to objects and use your hands and head. For instance, as opposed to smiling behind a mask, which can get results when focusing on the eyes, rather acknowledge others with a head bob. Also, an exaggerated gesture like a massive thumbs up can go a long way in getting the message across.
Wait your turn
Due to the events of the last 2+ years, communicative technologies like Zoom have made people used to staying silent while others talk. With this in mind, it’s important to remember not to talk over others when in person also. More backchanneling also needs to become part of your communicative skills. In other words, confirming that you’re engaged in the conversation by way of a head nod instead of the usual verbal cues – ‘uh-huh,’ ‘right,’ ‘of course,’ etc. Always be mindful of the background noises and move to a quieter spot if necessary while making sure to be sat or standing in clear view of the person you’re conversing with.
Don’t repeat yourself. Rephrase instead
Sometimes, repeating yourself can prove to be an inefficient communicative strategy. Instead, opt to use different words which could prove easier to understand. Alternatively, segment what you’re going to say, thereby making your sentences simpler, while still getting the message out. For instance, introduce a topic – ‘I was asking about your mother. How is she these days? Is she coming to the wedding?’
Make sure everyone’s on the same page
Be on the lookout for any signs indicating a lack of understanding. If the person you’re talking to has a furrowed brow look, odds are they’re not computing the information. Keep an ear out for unexpected statements or answers, which would mean they’re not following you. For instance, if you say, “How are things today?” and they say “Maybe,” you’ll know there’s been a breakdown in communication. As opposed to asking if they understand, rather place the onus on you to understand them. For instance, say “Let me make sure I’m understanding you,” and then provide a synopsis of what was conveyed. Probe them for clarity by asking if they have any questions for you.
Let text do the talking
Nowadays the majority of smartphones have speech to text apps, which means you can dictate a message and then have it converted to text. This strategy can prove highly useful in potentially stressful scenarios such as medical consultations. Alternatively, you could use a pen and a pad, especially if it’s a specific or important message that cannot afford any misunderstanding. The only challenge that comes with using a text to speech app is that you’ll need to train it to know your voice through a mask.