“What?” The Art of Communicating While Masked
We are masked most of the time these days, but we are still communicating with people we encounter in public, and being intentional about that makes for clearer communication and can create a sense of belonging. Even though we have masks over our noses and mouths, we are still communicating with our upper face and our body language, in addition to what we choose to say and how we say it. But, many of the verbal and nonverbal social cues we use to make meaning have literally been muted.
You may notice when you are on an outing and you encounter others with masks, some seem to pretend that you are not even there. It is as if covering noses and mouths prohibits communication. It reminds me of toddlers who cover their eyes and then think you can’t see them.
I don’t know about you, but when I encounter such people, it is off-putting, raises my already-elevated sense of COVID-19 anxiousness, and reduces my sense of belonging in community.
Yet, I have been that person! Focused on task at hand in a store or on a walk and pretending that nobody else exists. It seems easy for us to fall into these silos in public these days. Adding a hat and sunglasses makes it even easier to socially disappear.
The opposite also happens. I am on a walk and smile underneath my mask and say hello and the other masked people smile, nod their heads, and/or say hello back. Sometimes I even get a ‘what a cute dog’ or a ‘have a good day’ response. Then I feel the world is still a friendly place and my mood brightens. That experience has given me reason to consider more intentional communication.
I have been coaching leaders all summer on how to communicate more effectively on Zoom, and I realize that just as there are techniques to counter reduced human interaction on video, there are also techniques to compensate for communicating while wearing a mask.
We can use other forms of nonverbal communication and adapt our verbal communication to compensate for having our mouths and noses covered.
Nonverbal communication techniques we can employ while masked include:
- Head movement – taking a page from the book of the India head hobble, we can tilt our heads to show listening and nod or shake our heads to communicate if we agree
- Eyes – we can make direct eye contact to show that we want someone to listen and that we care, and we can smile underneath the mask, which makes our eyes visibly smile too
- Foreheads – we can raise or lower or furrow our eyebrows in a more dramatic way than usual to express our emotions
- Shoulders – we can raise them up when we don’t understand, and we can move them toward or away from a person as a means of connection or distancing
- Wave – the popular way to finish Zoom calls, the wave is also an effective form of masked communication to indicate friendliness when passing by or signal completion of an interaction at a store or restaurant
Adjusting our verbal communication while wearing a mask also improves interactions and creates more of a human connection.
- Slow down and enunciate – to be understood even though our mouths are covered, we need to speak at a slower pace and consciously enunciate our words
- Speak louder – it is just harder to hear with a mask on and sometimes a shield in between, but it is worth the effort to raise our volume in order to converse
- Say hello – just a short greeting will increase the sense of connectedness when a lengthy conversation is too much effort
- Be respectful – ‘yes please’, ‘no thank you’, ‘have a good day’ — these short salutations are easy and foster friendliness
All of these masked communication techniques, while seemingly minor in consequence, can actually go a long way in helping with clear communication. They also may alleviate pandemic anxiety and increase our sense of human connection in a time when we all could use a little more understanding.