What Did You Say? Tips for Communicating While Wearing a Mask

By Marian Altman, PhD, RN, CNS-BC, CCRN-K Sep 16, 2020

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“What did you say? I didn’t hear you!” or “I can’t understand you.”

“What did you say? I didn’t hear you!” or “I can’t understand you.” I am saying these words and hearing them more often, and you probably are too, while trying to communicate in our new normal of wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart. Masks are not only a barrier to our verbal communication, but nonverbal communication is also hindered. Here’s why it is harder to communicate while wearing a mask and standing 6 feet apart.

  • Sound is muffled by a mask, which makes it more difficult to understand speech.
  • High-pitch sound waves don’t pass through mask material.
  • We can't read lips and see facial expressions through a mask.
  • People with aphasia and other communication challenges may find it difficult to speak with a mask on.
  • People who normally wear hearing aids may not do so while wearing a mask due to the discomfort of wearing both.
  • Physical distance makes it more difficult to see visual cues.
  • Sound levels decrease with distance.
  • We can’t lean in or get closer.

Despite these challenges, we know asking everyone to wear masks can help reduce the spread of the virus. In an effort to improve my communication while wearing a mask, I’ve found the following strategies can help:

  • 1Make sure you have the attention of the person you are communicating with.

  • 2Face the person you are speaking with directly, and ensure that nothing is blocking your view.

  • 3Be aware of environmental noise and move to a quieter place if possible.

  • 4Talk louder than usual, but don’t shout.

  • 5Speak slower than usual to increase understanding by spacing out your words a bit.

  • 6Use simple language.

  • 7Use an expressive tone.

  • 8Maintain genuine eye contact while speaking with others, but not too much as this could be perceived as dominant behavior.

  • 9Use nonverbal cues, such as nodding your head, to acknowledge you are listening and understanding.

  • 10Use your eyes and eyebrows to convey emotion – people can tell you are smiling behind your mask with your raised eyebrows, raised cheeks and crow’s feet.

  • 11Use hand gestures such as waving when you say hello or a thumbs-up to signal your agreement.

  • 12Ask follow-up questions to ensure the listener understood your message.

It can be exhausting and frustrating to communicate and connect with others when they can’t see our smiles, and the use of touch is limited. Try the tips above to communicate more effectively while wearing a mask.

What are your best strategies to improve communication when you are wearing a mask, a face shield and/or eye goggles?