Communicating well in a mask

COVID-19 keeps presenting us with communication challenges—and as professional communicators who deliver complex, new and sensitive information usually in face-to-face contexts, academics are right at the the challenging edge having to adapt our techniques. Previously, I’ve talked about communicating in meetings, and communicating on Zoom.

The new challenge for me is communicating in-person while wearing a mask. Working in Melbourne, Australia, we have almost no cases and a rigorous test and trace program, as well as mandatory mask wearing. I work in a residential college, a place where we still have over 150 students in residence plus 20 staff, and lots of other colleagues who have travelled to be onsite every day as essential services. I could do my job (sort of) from home, so I have been, while numbers were high. Now, I’m going back. 

I’ve already been into the office a few times, and on a couple of socially distanced picnics, so it’s early days, but that’s exactly when I find I’m most aware of what is challenging. It’s important to write down what it’s like when you are starting out, because soon enough it will feel natural to me, but only because I’m experienced. And this blog is all about going there first and then sharing my experience to smooth your own journey. 

This is general accessibility for everybody advice, obviously you may need to make specific adjustments for your context and individual situation! This is also written from my Australian context, though I think it will be relevant in North America, the UK and other places with similar cultures that value signals of positive, energetic openness to connect to others. 

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Masks are challenging in social situations because they can feel unfriendly, alienating and like they hide your personality. You can’t smile in a mask and people look pretty similar when you can’t see half their features! But that’s okay, we can work around it.

First of all: what communication gains are there in not wearing a mask? Knowing what is being ‘lost’ is useful to identify what you might want to replace.  

Some masks slightly muffle your words, but this is more of an issue in noisy situations or over the phone/video. So being in a quiet-ish space and facing the people you are talking to will help you to be audible. Generally, it’s helpful to slow down a bit and speak clearly.

Some people will value the opportunity to see your mouth in order to lip read. Lip reading is useful for people who speak English as a second language, for people who are hard of hearing, or for people identifying sounds in noisy or challenging environments. There are other ways to give visual cues when your lips are hidden—you might write things down (we do it while teaching! use those whiteboards!), use illustrative gestures, or point deliberately to an item. You’ll probably notice yourself doing this naturally—great! 

Don’t let yourself feel self conscious about using your hands a lot more, humans are awesome at finding ways to connect and we should trust our instincts here.

The other benefit to an uncovered face is the ability to make connection through facial expression—in particular by smiling. It’s well known that a blank expression is even more stressful than a negative expression, and by definition a mask is  a blank space.

Some cultures use eye expressions for emotional cues more than the mouth area—but shifts in the eye area tend to be more subtle, and are harder to see if you are also socially distancing by standing 6 feet away or at the other end of a classroom. It’s also more difficult if you are outside and wearing a sunhat or dark glasses. The Australian Cancer Council strongly recommends both a hat and sunnies to avoid damage from Australia’s strong UV rays, but when you add a mask there isn’t a lot of face left to see—and yet interacting outdoors is likely to be a big part of returning to campus for many of us. 

But there is no need to worry too much. The sound of your voice can tell us a lot. If you are talking, people can hear you smiling (this is also true on the telephone).  A warm or excited tone of voice will express your positive feelings. Using pitch and rhythm can also be powerful tools to let people know you come in peace and are happy to see them. On the whole, a rising intonation is more positive and open, so maybe let your uptalk out a bit more.

You could also verbalise your feelings rather than try to communicate them by facial expression. ‘I’m smiling right now’ does the same work as actually smiling, as long as it’s backed up by your tone of voice! We already have ways to signal our smiles when people can’t see us. In textual communication, for example, you can type  ‘lol’ or <grins>, or use emoticons like : ) and emoji like 😀. I don’t think we have a widely-recognised oral shorthand yet, but I doubt it will take long. Using positive phrases like ‘it’s nice to see you’, talking about positive things or making friendly jokes will also achieve the same positive connection. (If your joke is edgy or ironic, maybe don’t make it though. Without the accompanying cues, it is more likely to fall flat or come across as cruel.) 

[I’m reading the emoji section of Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet, and it’s interesting as she writes that emoticons are  positive, helpful, social behaviour… It’s not the more negative behaviour of putting on a mask’ in the metaphorical sense (p.187)—so I’ve been finding it interesting to flip her ideas from online to offline while in a literal mask which I’m wearing as a positive behaviour!]

You won’t always be talking.  But a ‘smile’ is just a Western cultural shorthand for ‘I am well disposed towards you’, and we already have another culturally normal and easy gesture for that: the hand wave. A quick hand-wave where you would have smiled achieves the same outcome, for example at the beginning and end of an interaction. A thumbs up might also work here (or whatever your local positive hand gesture is!) 

For me, I’m moving from online to mask-wearing. There are lots of ways that you can communicate in person that were not possible online (see my previous post about Zoom). The sound quality may still be a bit muffled, but you are more than 2 inches tall, and people can see your shoes!

In a Zoom meeting, we are often looking at other participants’ eyes on our screen, which the camera doesn’t pick up as eye contact. I therefore smile a lot on camera to show that I’m listening, but that’s me overusing the smile because I lost all the other cues, like making actual eye contact, or turning my head or body in the speaker’s direction. In-person, I can use these cues, or use my hands to gesture ‘go on, keep talking’, or a head tilt to show I’m paying attention. 

Use your body language to signal friendliness too. You can use explicit gestures, like a nod. Or you can use more implicit body language, like having a relaxed and open stance (e.g. shoulders back and down, arms slightly away from the body). You don’t have to  maintain this body language all day, that would be exhausting. As with explicit gestures like waving, pick your times—starting and finishing the conversation, or when delivering really significant information. 

You can also use your clothes to signal friendliness. This can be direct: like wearing a t-shirt with a positive slogan, a lapel pin with a smily face, or a comedy tie… Or it can be indirect: like wearing brighter colours or patterns than you normally would. A mask-wearing person in a cheerful patterned top is clearly signalling they are cheerful without you needing to see them smiling. A lot of people are using this technique on the mask itself to signal emotional warmth, openness and a sense of humour: bright colours and pop-culture prints make it all a bit less blank. I’m finding the colourful masks more friendly than masks printed with a smiling mouth. Smile prints are a bit ‘uncanny valley’ for me, or just Frankenstein’s monster (and, from my quick image search, the results quickly morphed from supposed-to-be friendly masks into Halloween horror grins pretty quickly). 

We don’t need to do all of these techniques, or not all the time, but having a toolbox can give us options and then we can work out which ones will work best for us and our personal style. Slowly, we all will build both a shared set of norms and a personalised communication style that is as nuanced as our facial expressions.

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Already I’ve seen people using these techniques and have tried using them myself, but I’d love to hear about your experiences so we can all become expert mask-wearing in-person communicators too! I’d also be keen to hear from people in places where mask wearing has been normal for much longer—particularly in places where positive energy is important in teaching, presenting and building professional networks. 

Interested in what other people advise? Here are some interesting links from around the globe:

Smiling behind the mask (Australia):

Building rapport while wearing a mask (US)

Showing Your Smile From Behind a Mask: How Culture and Emotion Impact Communication (US and Hong Kong comparison).

And much more click bait-y:

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