Speaking While Masked

As the pandemic enters its third year, the role of masks in reducing the risk of infection has been well documented. In the words of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Correct and consistent mask use is a critical step everyone can take to prevent getting and spreading COVID-19.”

Unfortunately, the protective barriers that masks create can hamper communication unless we compensate for them. I suspect that anyone who has worn a mask has struggled, at times, to be understood. More than once, I have had to repeat myself while placing an order at Starbucks, as in a “short flat white with soy,” only to discover that what I requested and what I received were not the same. Masks muffle our voices, obscure the movement of our lips and the visual clues they yield, and partly conceal our facial expressions, which play a critical role in conveying emotion. Happiness, for example, is generally evident when the corners of our lips rise upward. But when masks are worn, we are reduced to relying on the wrinkles that a smile creates around our eyes. If social distancing and ambient noise are added to the mix, we may well wonder if our words can fully survive the journey from our mouth to others’ ears.

As with everything, however, there are costs and benefits to weigh, and wearing a mask is a small price to pay for the protection afforded us and others. It is also worth noting that maskless communication over Zoom and other digital platforms has its own limitations. Such interactions are mediated by a camera, which typically denies both speaker and listener a full view of each other; internet connections can be unstable; conversations can be stilted; and even at its best, videoconferencing cannot replicate the rich sensory experience that distinguishes in-person communication. Although the challenge of speaking while masked can feel more intimate than those encountered over Zoom, it is also a challenge that lies within our power to address.

First and foremost, we can make a conscious effort to speak more distinctly, as opposed to more loudly. (Raising our voices does not necessarily make us more intelligible.) Clear speech entails linking our words less tightly; pausing a little longer between thought groups, which can be defined as roughly one to five words that form a unit of meaning; and varying our pitch to include a wider range of high and low notes. We should also avoid the temptation to shorten our vowels, which are critical to comprehension, and to blur our syllables or sounds. To return to my Starbucks order, this phrase is best approached as a collection of related but differentiated parts (/short/flat white/with soy/) rather than as one mouthful (/shortflatwhitewithsoy/) or five independent mouthfuls (/short/flat/white/with/soy/), neither of which is conducive to conveying meaning.

We should also breathe deeply, taking full advantage of the diaphragm, which has been described as “the major muscle of respiration,” and ensuring that our posture supports the consequent expansion of our lungs. The more breath we generate, the stronger our voices will be and the further they will carry. And, no, wearing an appropriate mask will not deny us this breath. According to the American Lung Association, “Masks are designed to be breathed through and there is no evidence that low oxygen levels occur.”

Lastly, we should make ample use of body language to offset the partial concealment of our faces. Our eyebrows, for example, can be quite expressive: raise them to convey surprise or skepticism; lower them to convey sorrow or concern. We can nod our heads to signify agreement, lean forward to signal interest, throw up our arms to express exasperation, or place our hands on our hearts to demonstrate appreciation. Conversely, we should make every effort to attune ourselves to nonverbal signals from our listeners, bearing in mind that even when silent, they are communicating with us.

In short, though speaking while masked can feel restrictive, we can do a lot to keep the channels of communication open. Indeed, if our masks could be said to have a silver lining, it is the opportunity they offer to approach the act of speaking with greater deliberation and self-awareneness; to refine and amplify the expressive tools with which we are endowed. Too often, we communicate on autopilot; now is the time to make some flight corrections that can serve us well long after our masks are set aside.