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How Do Face Masks Affect Our Communication?

By: Ash Pyarilal

a girl and guy talking to each other with face masks on

While many countries have lifted their face mask mandatory rule for those who are vaccinated, wearing a mask is still very much a part of many people’s lives. Although face masks provide a set of benefits, they can also bring a whole set of challenges while wearing them on, and communicating with one another.

In this article, we shall uncover the various challenges, reasons, and solutions for how facemasks can affect our communication

The connection between our mouth and ear

To better understand how face masks affect our communication, let us first take a look at the ‘communication pathway’ in a ‘conversation’ illustrated in the below figure.

speech conversation pathway illustration

The process behind how our brain understands the meaning behind the conversation depends on both the quality of the sound or voice and the facial movements that the person expresses.

We shall explain more about it in the next section.

Related post: 5 ways that sound affects the human body

Is it harder to communicate with face masks on?

For some, they might not find it too hard to understand a conversation with the face masks on, but for most, especially those facing hearing reduction might find it tricky to pick up on social cues without seeing another person’s face.

A 2021 study done by Cardiff University and Queens University Belfast involving 38 people, revealed that hiding half of the face with a mask could negatively impact our ability to socially interact and share other people’s emotions.

As part of the study, Dr Ross Vanderwert of Cardiff University’s School of Psychology explained that our brain uses facial mimicry to reflect and mirror the emotion behind the conversation.

This essential facial mimicry, where the brain recreates and mirrors the emotional experience of the other person, affects how we empathise with others and interact socially.

Since face masks block almost half of the face, the response emotions can get mixed up.

“Our study suggests that when the movements of the lower part of the face are disrupted or hidden, this can be problematic, particularly for positive social interactions and the ability to share emotions. Wearing a face mask continues to be vital to protect ourselves and others during the Covid-19 pandemic—but our research suggests this may have important implications for the way we communicate and interact,” Dr Ross Vanderwert added.

Related post: Shut up and listen: the rise of listening bars

two women communicating with face masks

So then, How do you talk while wearing a face mask?

As discussed, wearing a face mask can form serious challenges to our communication. That being said, following these steps can help improve the conversation quality and ease the challenges associated with it.

Use a Clear face mask

Wearing a clear face mask can help the person you are talking to understand better by reading your lips as well as your facial emotions. This is especially useful when talking to people facing hearing reduction.

This does not mean you should not consider choosing any other type of facemask. In fact, a study done by reuters found that disposable surgical masks offer the best acoustic performance.

Choose a meeting spot that is acoustically treated

The conversation quality you are having gets majorly affected by the social space that you choose to be in. If the cafe, restaurant, pub, or social space that have just visited doesn’t acoustically perform well, then it could be harder to hear one another.  This is an issue that affects people who do not wear masks as well. But in the case of face masks, it gets harder.

Figuring out a spot that is acoustically treated could easily be a nightmare especially if you have a million things running through your head at the moment. To make this process easier, Team Mumbli, consisting of sound professionals and engineers released the first-ever Hearing Wellness Movement to promote hearing wellness and to connect customers to these venues in a single click.

You can access these venues now by clicking here

Be loud & clear

If the person you are talking to is having trouble understanding you, simply talk louder and slower than you usually do(without shouting). your focus should be to make it more clear.

Also, be patient. Face masks and social distancing decrease the sound and obscure the visual cues that help us communicate. It’s hard, even for those with normal hearing, and more so for those who are facing hearing reduction.

Be compassionate.

Reduce the background volume

Background noise can easily make it hard for your conversation to be clear. Simply reduce the volume or move to a quieter spot to have a good conversation.

Alternatively, you can simply meet up in social spaces certified for sound, as mentioned in the previous point.

Related post : Hearing the world in colour: sound-to-colour synesthesia

a woman holding her fingers in her ears to stop sound

Can wearing a face mask cause you to lose your voice?

Whilst there is no solid evidence to state that face masks can cause you to lose your voice, a study in 2021 stated that wearing a mask leads to restricted mouth and jaw movements as we try to limit the movement of mask material on our faces. This causes tension and muffles the sound of our voices more, in addition to the muffling caused by the mask.

To avoid muffling, we would speak louder causing a more vocal strain than we usually would face.

Related post: The sound of silence: peace during a pandemic

Can wearing a face mask affect your hearing?

A study done in 2021 by the national library of medicine revealed that there are multiple factors that can affect our hearing while wearing a mask.

Facemasks can pose as a barrier to the natural flow of sound waves from your mouth, especially blocking the higher speech frequencies where the key information in words is found. By doing so, the main sounds and cues that those with hearing impairments rely on cannot be transmitted.

Simply said, face masks can lower the sound of your speech making it harder to understand.

Also, wearing masks for many hours in a row or just not cleaning it (or disposing of) can lead to skin irritation and rashes behind the ears (if those are ear-loop masks).

Related post: Brain tingles: ASMR

a woman breathing fresh air with her face mask off

Unmasking the conclusion

As the COVID wave slowly drops and the mask rules disappear, situations have made it easier now to communicate with one another.

Still, it is worth understanding how facemasks affect our communication and taking the necessary steps to help the conversation be better.

There are still many countries that still follow most of the COVID-influenced rules. There are also many individuals who choose to wear a mask for safety or other purposes.

 

Join the Hearing wellness movement banner

 

Resources

NCIB – Effect of Face Masks on Interpersonal Communication During the COVID-19 Pandemic 

The University of Kansas – Christian S. Crandall (2020) – How Much Do Masks Affect Social Interaction?

Science daily – study – Difference In Talking Louder, Talking Over Noise Depends On Verbal Cues, Internal Targets

Washington university of medicine (2021) – study – Help for mask-induced voice strain

National library of medicine (2021) – study – The impact of face masks on the communication of adults with hearing loss during COVID-19 in a clinical setting

 

 

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