With Covid cases spiking in America and much of Europe and cold weather driving us indoors, it's highly likely you're going to be wearing a mask even more often in the coming months. That's essential for the very important business of keeping people alive, but as we've all already discovered, it also creates communication challenges.
It's easy enough to misunderstand each other without masks, and experts and common sense agree covering half your face makes it more difficult to convey emotions-- particularly warmth--as well as distorting sound slightly. (The deaf community faces even greater challenges.)
If you're keen to keep your community safe by following public health guidance but also want to communicate clearly with customers and employees, what can you do? On The Conversation recently communication coach Cheryl Chambers offered three tips.
1. Rely on your eyes.
When your mouth is covered, you have to rely on the eyes more. "You can regain some control over communication by working with what you have left -- the eyes. If you want to increase understanding with a masked individual, you should look them in the eyes," recommends Chambers, though she warns that's "easier said than done. Eye contact triggers self-consciousness, consumes extra brain power, and becomes uncomfortable after only three seconds."
Looking searchingly into the other person's eyes may feel awkward at first, but as the BBC's Sandy Ong points out, that's just what people learn to do in countries where face veiling is common for religious or cultural reasons.
"I would be a bit more aware of their non-verbals, keeping more eye contact to understand how they were feeling, to try and pick up on some sort of emotion," one woman who grew up in Saudi Arabia tells Ong. "It wasn't hard, but it was very different." Learning to pay more attention to the eyes is a learned skill, and if millions in the Middle East can master it, so can you.
2. Pay more attention to body language.
The eyes carry more weight during a masked conversation. So does body language. "For instance, when someone is happy, they stand up straighter and lift their head; when they are sad, they slouch and drop their head; and when they are angry, their whole body tenses up. Learning how people use their bodies to convey emotion may help reduce the uncertainty you feel when communicating with someone in a mask," says Chambers.
A better understanding of these cues can also help you convey the right message with your own body. "You can appear more attentive by turning your body toward the individual, leaning in or nodding. To let another person know you want to start speaking, straighten your posture, hold up your index finger or nod more frequently," Chambers suggests.
3. Adjust your tone, not your volume.
Because masks muffle our voices slightly, it can be tempting to raise your voice in response. But yelling doesn't make your meaning clearer--it just makes you seem mad. What should you do instead? Chambers suggests getting in touch with your inner actor and paying more attention to your tone and enunciation when speaking.
"Try this -- say the phrase 'I didn't see you there' as if you were scared. Now pretend you are happy. Now confused. Chances are, anyone listening to you could easily identify your emotions without even seeing you," she says. "Changing the tone of your voice can change the whole conversation, so instead of increasing volume, try improving enunciation."
The underlying connection between all Chambers's tips is that communicating effectively while wearing a mask takes a bit more effort, but it can be done. And since the virus has given us no choice, it's a skill we're all going to have to do our best to master.