16 April 2021

Masks have become an everyday part of our lives and are likely to remain in our lives for some time to come. This is already having a major impact on how we communicate and are perceived.

A friend of mine, a nurse who works in a hospice, was talking about how hard it is to care for someone at the end of their life while wearing a mask. She described a conversation she had with a patient who had said something funny. She said to them, “I know you can’t see through my mask, but I’m smiling at you!” The patient said, “I know. I can hear it in your voice!”

This got me thinking about how many of the non-verbal ways in which we communicate or convey emotion are not possible when wearing a mask.

 

Facial Expressions Can't be Seen
A smile is such a powerful expression to reassure, soften words and convey warmth. And when someone can’t see your smile, like my friend did, you have to tell them it’s there!

When teasing or joking with someone, an accompanying smile says – I’m having fun with you, my words aren’t serious - but in a mask, that might not be so clear.

I am a great one for a sympathetic grimace, or a downturned mouth to show concern or sadness in response to something said to me. It is less of an interruption when someone is talking and indicates I’m following the story. But that isn’t going to fly anymore. Behind my mask, none of that will be seen.

Communicating With People Who Have a Hearing Impairment
We also need to think how we can communicate with people who are hearing impaired. Health and social care staff will need to write things down, type on a device, book a signing-interpreter, download dictation or speech-to-text app. We need to ask the person what would work best for them. The RNID website states that talking to a hearing impaired person dependent on lip-reading and facial expressions is one of the few times it is permissable to lower your mask temporarily to communicate, and signers are exempt from wearing masks while communicating. Additionally, I think we underestimate how many people have undiagnosed hearing difficulties and subtly lip-read to aid understanding.

So unless you have highly mobile eyebrows or very expressive eyes, we are going to have to step up how we communicate behind our masks. So here are my top tips for making sure that, like my nurse friend, you communicate clearly while wearing a mask

Top Tips for Communicating When Wearing a Mask

Dramatic gestures! You might need to use your hands more to convey your meaning. We need to get more animated so yes, you’ll have to get your ‘jazz hands’ out!  A shrug of your shoulders and upturned palms will show when you don’t know something. A frown and hands on hips will convey puzzlement. Or you might opt for more down to earth gestures like a thumbs-up, or a wave to say hello or goodbye. Nodding is good too. If you’re someone who talks with your hands, you probably do this anyway. If not, you might have to adopt more demonstrative mannerisms to enhance the way you communicate.

Verbalise your silences If you are someone who pauses in your speech, or goes quiet while you think or contemplate what has been said, that won’t work anymore. Behind a mask, your silence is open to interpretation and could be unnerving. So you need to talk aloud where you might have previously been quiet. Even if it is to say … “I don’t know what to say!” or “I need to think about that”, or like my friend in the hospice, “You’ve made me smile!” Your silence has to speak now.

We all appreciate it when a busy shop worker gives you eye contact and says "I'll be with you in a minute" in lieu of an acknowledging smile so take care to engage and communicate with people looking to get your attention.

Speak Your Smile If you previously smiled at the bus driver as you boarded and touched in, now you need to say ‘Morning’ or ‘Thanks’ to avoid being another blank masked face.

If you are a healthcare worker and usually walk into a waiting room or office, and smile at everyone in greeting, they won’t see it. You have to say it.

If you smile reassuringly at a patient, as you gather equipment together, they won’t know. You have to get into the habit of saying “I’ll just get everything together and then we’ll make a start” or similar.

In short, if you find yourself smiling at someone behind your mask, you should probably say so.

Talk up your emotions People won’t be able to read your facial expression when you’re wearing a mask so you need to help them. You need to say what you’re feeling whether it’s positive or negative. Statements like “that’s made me feel a bit sad” or “I feel chuffed/pleased/nervous/worried about what you’ve just said’ can replace the message your facial expression would usually convey. You have to find your own words to convey your vibe and how you feel. If you don’t do this, you risk being misinterpreted or misunderstood. A chuckle or a deep 'Mmmmm' can also convey how you are feeling. We need to consciously think how we convey non-verbal meaning as it is an important part how we communicate and connect with people.

Slow down. Speech can be muffled behind a mask but don’t be tempted to pull down your mask to communicate more clearly. Some practical steps can help you to  get your message over better such as slowing down, using fewer words, shorter sentences and pausing in between sentences to let your words sink in.

Narrate your actions You might be used to talking your way through your day if you have children or pets. This is a way to ensure that whoever you are with knows what’s happening and that long silences while you concentrate don’t come over as being surly or unfriendly. It involves describing and chatting through what you are doing. You don’t have to talk constantly but think of it like a radio show – you need to bear in mind that your audience can’t see your facial expressions so you need to keep them engaged.

People are not mind readers. We all need to find a way communicate our thinking in whatever way suits our personality. Don’t assume that someone knows – none of us are mind readers. In a mask, we need to make extra effort. It might be stating the obvious but we all appreciate when someone includes and acknowledges us. 

But don’t drive your colleagues mad with your ‘David Attenborough style’ monologue of your daily activities – unless you’re off to the kitchen and offering to make them a cuppa! In that case, that’ll be milk and no sugar for me, thanks! And just for you to know ........ I’m smiling!

Janet Flaherty
Head of Communication 

Photograph: Two young women sitting talking wearing masks and holding a coffee cup by Charlotte May from Pexels

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