Is wearing a mask to protect yourself against Coronavirus also stopping people from understanding your speech?
We use our eyes to support our ears when we are listening to someone speak and wearing a mask takes away that extra help. People are finding they cannot understand what another person is saying if that person is wearing a mask.
There are two reasons for this, which are first – the mask absorbs sound, so the speech is quieter – the second is that the mask hides our expression, so the listener cannot pick up non-verbal signals.
5 Ways to Speak Clearly Wearing a Mask
- Speak more slowly
- Speak slightly louder than normal
- Use more range in your voice than normal (more ups and downs!)
- Speak more clearly – take time to pronounce your words
- Use your hands to support your expression.
Looking at the last point, this could imply we become more like Italians who are famous for using their hands, if not their whole arms, to express their emotions! But a simple thumbs-up and a nod of the head would show that you understand and agree with the other person. Going forward from the ‘Shall I sit over there?’ to the restaurant manager, you could turn and point to the table and hopefully you will be answered with a ‘yes’ a nod and a thumbs-up!
Let’s look at the issues around quieter speech to begin with. The mask absorbs sound and the wearer’s voice sounds muffled and that is because we are speaking through a barrier close to our mouth. The sounds in words that normally travel fast from our mouth, like T, P, K, S, TH, F and SH are immediately softened and can be lost. If our words contain these sounds, they can be lost and so can our meaning.
It is particularly important these days, when having a conversation where both people are wearing masks, to speak more slowly – and importantly, finish the ends of your words. In a café for example, words like ‘Shall I sit over there?’ said very quickly and muffled could come across as ‘shlie i-si-ova thair?’ Complete gobbledegook! It adds to the frustration and sense of unreality we all share during these times of barriers and social distancing due to Covid19.
The second reason for not being able to understand each other as well as usual is the absence of context. What does this mean? Well, when someone speaks to us, we listen with our ears, but our eyes are watching that person’s lips and facial expressions as well, to give context to what they are saying. With our eyes, we observe subtle emotions, and we get not only the sound of the speech, but the subtext of what that person is saying. This helps us understand the meaning of the speech, not just the words.
We also rely on seeing the other person’s mouth during a conversation for lip-reading. Many years ago I asked someone to wait while I put on my glasses so I could hear them better! Our eyes are picking up the shapes made by the speakers mouth as they talk and our ears are picking up the sounds. Together these two senses give us clarity around what the speaker is saying.
Some manufacturers have introduced a mask with a see-through patch larger than the mouth. This is to help with understanding each other and is so helpful, indeed vital, to those who rely on lip-reading.
Humans are very good indeed at interpreting speech and the clues around what the words actually mean, but put a great big piece of cloth over the face from below the eyes and there’s not much to work with. Most of the combined subtleties of the 42 muscles in the face are lost and we are left to guess the emotion and context of the word.
Our speech and language appears so cold at the moment, tucked away behind the mask. Be imaginative and do what you can to express warmth and add colour to your muffled voice to maintain positive social contact with others. Speaking from behind a mask is difficult for everyone – keep positive, take your time and hopefully things will get better!