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Communication Challenges When Wearing Face Masks

Published in For the Health of It Author: Eric Christensen, AuD, Carris Health

While individuals in our community are doing their part to slow the spread of coronavirus by wearing face coverings, the masks we are wearing muffle our voices and can make communication frustrating. This is true for everyone right now, but especially so for people with hearing loss.

We rely on visual cues like facial expressions and lip reading to help understand what people are saying. The difference between a serious statement and a joke is often the smile on our face or the tone of our voice. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this challenging since face masks are now recommended in public settings and these masks muffle our voices and hide our faces.

Dr. Eric Christensen, an Audiologist with Carris Health, offers the following suggestions for communicating with someone while wearing a mask.

"First and foremost, be patient and understanding," said Dr. Christensen. "Recognize that your client, customer or friend is not trying to be difficult. They simply may not be able to understand what you’re saying. Don’t let frustration get the best of you or the situation."

  1. Do not remove your mask to speak.
  2. Get the person’s attention by saying their name or gesturing to them.
  3. Before you begin, make sure they can hear and understand you.
  4. Maintain good eye contact and face the person you’re speaking to, at a safe distance.
  5. Speak at a normal or slightly slower pace.
  6. Speak slightly louder but natural. Do not yell or over-enunciate.
  7. Use shorter, everyday phrases and words.
  8. Rephrase rather than repeat words that were not understood.
  9. Use gestures and point.
  10. Use a pen and paper or smartphone with speech-to-text recognition if needed.

Remember that speech to text functions on smart phones can often be fooled. Be ready to clarify words or phrases that don’t seem to make sense.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately 16% of Americans report some degree of hearing loss. Hearing loss affects people of all ages. Half of those individuals with hearing loss are younger than age 65. It’s estimated that one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing.

“Many people with hearing loss wear hearing aids to assist them,” said Christensen. “And while modern hearing aids can help us with background noise, they cannot always clear up the muffled speech that comes through a face mask.” We cannot rely on hearing aids, or any other single device, to get us over these new hurdles.

Dr. Christensen encourages those with hearing loss to come prepared when encountering potential communication challenges.

He suggests carrying a printed card or an electronic note on your smartphone with the following information that can be shared with caregivers, retail clerks, restaurant servers and other public workers.

  • I have hearing loss and may have trouble understanding people with a mask.
  • Please keep your mask on, but communicate with me by:
    • Using good eye contact
    • Speaking clearly
    • Speaking at a good volume (but please don’t yell)
  • If necessary, please:
    • Use a pen and paper, OR
    • Speak into my smartphone so I can see the transcribed text

“The goals are to put people at ease and to ensure everyone understands what’s being communicated," Christensen added. "We can all do our part to be more inclusive and to be good communicators."