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Tips for Communicating Clearly When Wearing a COVID-19 Mask

Toby Graham /

I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I like wearing a mask.

For one, as the days get chillier up here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s nice to have a bit of cloth over the tip of my nose when I venture outdoors. But on a less tangible level, I appreciate the sense of privacy a face covering affords. I don’t have to smile if I don’t want to, or I can grin like the Cheshire Cat, and no one has to know.

If I add a pair of sunglasses and a hat into the mix, I’m basically anonymous.

Who’s that mysterious stranger? I like to imagine other people thinking when I walk into the corner store to buy taco ingredients. Maybe she’s an undercover agent. Or a drifter. Or a contract killer. I bet she could take someone’s head clean off with those tortillas.

The downside is when I have to actually express myself.

“I mork bor an embiromenbal healf amd fafety amd compliamce combamy.”

“A what?”

“You bow, am EHF combamy!”

Okay, it’s not that bad, but the fact is that masked communication is far from ideal. No matter how cool you look, it still sounds a little like you’re chewing on your shirt when you talk.

And then there’s the problem of nonverbal communication. As Dustin York, associate professor and director of undergraduate and graduate communications at Maryville University, writes in a recent Harvard Business Review article:

“Whether you’re trying to sell a car, pitch a project to your boss, or nail a job interview, what you convey beyond words can determine the difference between success and failure. This makes communication in the age of COVID-19 more challenging for the obvious reason that masks, a necessary component of fighting the pandemic, hide the parts of our faces that display facial expressions—particularly those micro expressions that we use without thinking to convey as well as perceive sincerity, trustworthiness, and good intentions.

In situations where there’s an incongruity between what’s spoken verbally and what’s displayed nonverbally, people instinctively lend greater weight to the latter. Unfortunately, if your expressions are concealed by a mask, that can happen more often. A case in point is a 2013 study which found that when doctors wore face masks during consultations, patients had more negative perceptions of them.”

What York is saying is that people assume certain things about you when you’re wearing a mask—probably not that you have the skills of a tortilla commando, but that you’re as cold and uncaring as one. It can be especially problematic for teams that work together in-person. Face coverings disrupt our ability to empathize with one another; to establish the rapport that builds team cohesion.

Luckily, there are several ways we can overcome this challenge—and no, none of them involve ditching your mask. York recommends the following:

  • Practice your “mask voice”—speak clearly, pause regularly, and emote when appropriate.
  • Practice active listening—show the other person you’re understanding what they’re saying.
  • Use gestures and body language more than usual.
  • Mirror the other person.
  • Consider where your toes are pointing (really).
  • Smile with your eyes.
  • Avoid clear masks unless necessary—e.g. if you’re speaking to a deaf person who depends on lip-reading.
  • Know when to have the conversation virtually over the phone or a video conference app.

Read “How to Build Rapport … While Wearing a Mask.”

For bor COVID-19 healf, fafety, and compliamce tipf—ahem—check out KPA’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

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