Face masks are a hindrance to effective communication and understanding? What are the options for proper communication?

Face mask has become a necessary accessory now. Those who are new to wearing it struggle and find it extremely uncomfortable. Besides a feeling of suffocation, they state that they are unable to understand conversations. All the sounds are muffled and incomprehensible and communication is hampered. People who are deaf and mute face more difficulties due to inability to read lip movements with face masks on. What are the options out?

Face mask wearing and its problems

People is some dusty and polluted countries are used to wearing masks on a regular basis. And now due to the coronavirus scare, more than 50 countries worldwide have made it compulsory for their residents to wear face masks in public places. This is to prevent virus spread to others as well as to the wearer.

Face mask in public places [Source: Shutter Stock]
Some countries have not made a mandatory rule about face mask wearing. But still some of their netizens prefer to wear it in order to save themselves from the deadly virus and also to protect others from their droplets in case they are having the infection.

But people who had never worn it before are finding it difficult to cope up with this new essential accessory of daily wear. Many cannot breathe through the mask. And for many understanding what the person with the face mask is saying is difficult. The sounds are muffled and not intelligible. Besides, deaf and mute people used to rely on lip movements for understanding what the opposite person is telling. But due to the face mask, lip movements are not visible and hence the widespread use of masks has created a new problem for this special needs community.

Communication and face masks

Human beings are trained from childhood to read and process the whole face rather than a particular feature of it. Psychologist Rebecca Brewer states:

“When we cannot see the whole face, such holistic processing is disrupted.”

Eyes are the windows of the soul [Source: DW]
Normally, one focuses on the eyes, lips, and facial movements to decipher what the person means to say. Mask covers part of the face including the lips. Facial expressions cannot be viewed. Therefore, social interaction is hampered, misunderstandings could crop up, and harmonious function of a group could vanish.

Also, read Which is better? Face shield or a face mask in this coronavirus pandemic?

What is the solution?

Due to the face mask, the facial mode of communication is lost. But there are other supplementary methods of communication such as body posture, body motion, and hand gestures, words, pitch of the words, tone, and face color. These add on to understand what the person is saying. With the face part gone, we have to increasingly focus on these methods to understand the speaker. Aleix Martinez, Professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State University feels:

“As long as you have access to other cues, you’re pretty much safe,”

“The fact that you’re wearing a mask or that you have your face covered should not prevent others from understanding what you’re trying to express non-verbally.”

Surgical mask with a clear window [Source: Safe and Clear]
Besides, one can learn to speak with more vocal inflection. One can use eyes and eyebrows more to express the meaning of words. For the deaf people, the face mask creates a genuine problem. Therefore, masks with a transparent window cut into it over the lip area is beneficial. They can read the lips. Additionally, instead of face mask, face shield can be used so that lip movements are easy to read and there is no sound muffling.

Shield for the face [Source: Amazon]
For a deeper, meaningful conversation, face mask is a physical hindrance and can be removed after ensuring the safety of the speaker and the listener.