How to effectively communicate with facial masks

Opinion: Columns

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Cynthia Chow

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Wearing facial masks has become the new normal, so it's important to maintain effective communication while wearing one. Facial masks reduce the volume of conversational speech anywhere from 5 to 15 decibels. This can hinder accurate communication, especially for listeners with hearing difficulty. Moreover, facial masks limit our ability to utilize facial cues, which many people rely on to enhance communication.

To help overcome this, individuals wearing facial masks should follow a few tips to help ensure what they are saying is accurately understood. First, slow your rate of speech and speak a little louder, but do not shout. This gives the listener time to process what is being said and added volume to improve the signal (speech) over any background noise. 

If you are in a loud environment, try reducing the background noise whenever possible. If there is a fan making excessive noise, move away from it or turn it down or off. Removing background noise, or moving away from the noise, will help improve the signal-to-noise ratio and simplify communication. 

In addition, body language can be used to enhance the meaning of what you are trying to communicate. Using hand gestures and pointing to what you are talking about can help direct the conversation. This can also be used as you transition from one discussion topic to another. Moreover, be sure to use your eyes and eyebrows to help convey emotions. For example, happiness can be observed by raised eyebrows and wide eyes; while pinched eyebrows and squinted eyes can convey confusion or sadness. Collectively, the use of these nonverbal cues and gestures can help enhance what you are communicating verbally. 

It's important to verify that your conversational partner understood what you said. If your partner responds inappropriately, be patient and try again. Just because they didn't hear what you said correctly doesn't mean they weren't listening. Now more than ever, listeners have to exert more effort to understand what is being communicated to them. We are all adjusting to a new normal and doing our best, so be prepared to repeat what you are trying to communicate if necessary. 

If you are experiencing hearing loss, now is as good of a time as ever to get your hearing evaluated. Hearing aids are designed to amplify speech and reduce background noise. If you are a candidate for hearing aids, this alone can help relax and improve communication, especially as facial masks become to new normal. 

I'm an audiologist at CAA The Hearing Place, located on North Avenue in Oak Park. I was curious if the Wednesday Journal was interested in a small piece I could write regarding communication tips while wearing a facial covering is an audiologist with Consulting Audiology Associates in Oak Park.

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