Wearing a face covering is an important part of keeping you and others healthy right now. Face coverings can also make talking to those around you more difficult. In the U.S., approximately 15 percent of adults over age 18 report trouble hearing. Face coverings can muffle sound making it hard to understand speech. They can also obscure facial features, disrupting speech perception and the emotion conveyed by the speaker.
When it is harder to understand speech—whether because of cloth face coverings, distance, or other factors—research suggests that we have fewer cognitive resources to process information deeply. As a result, communication suffers, and feelings of stress and isolation may increase.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders offers the following tips to improve communication when wearing a facial covering:
- Be aware. Is the person you’re communicating with having trouble understanding you? Ask and adapt if needed.
- Be patient. Facial coverings block visual cues and muffle sounds that help us understand speech, which can make interactions frustrating.
- Be mindful. Consider how physical distancing might affect your communication. As distance increases, sound levels decrease, and visual cues are more difficult to see.
- Be loud and clear. Speak up, but don’t shout. Focus on speaking clearly. Consider wearing a clear facial covering, if possible. If you are having trouble understanding, ask the person you’re talking with to speak louder. If you lip-read, ask those you interact with regularly to wear a clear facial covering.
- Turn down the background volume. Background noise can make conversation especially hard. Move to a quieter spot or turn down the sound, when possible.
- Communicate another way. Use a smartphone, talk-to-text app or writing tools (e.g., paper/pen, whiteboard) to communicate.
- Confirm your statement is clear. Ask if your message has been understood.
- Bring a friend or be a friend. If it’s essential that you comprehend important spoken details – during a discussion with a health care provider, for example – consider bringing a friend or family member with you.
Now, more than ever, it is important to make an extra effort to communicate. With a little extra effort and problem solving, we can all communicate clearly while staying safe.