Masked Communication

While waiting my turn in line at a convenience store, I heard: “I can take you over here.” Two registers were opening, and I couldn’t tell who was talking because I couldn’t see any lip movement. I slowly wandered in the general direction of the new lines opening up. After a few seconds my hesitation prompted a direct look; the eyes said: “hurry up,” and I knew where to go.

When mouths are masked, the normal visual cues of speech are missing, and we must rely almost only on hearing to navigate conversations. As a result, even incidental spoken exchanges can be fraught with confusion and miscommunication.  We’ve all been in these situations: unable to read facial expressions or lips, unable to distinguish the muffled sounds coming from behind the masks, we abandon these conversations with a feeling of frustration and a lack of understanding.

Lessons from Culture

Thus, it is interesting to stop and think about the cultures in which people have been wearing masks for generations. For example, many Islamic women wear face coverings in the presence of all males who are not a part of their immediate family.  I am not talking about the hijab, which is a head covering, but the niqab, which covers the face, leaving only the eyes visible. In some Islamic cultures, this is considered an essential part of a woman’s modest attire.

What can we learn from these cultures about how to communicate while wearing a mask? I decided to ask some of my Muslim friends, and here is what I learned:

When listening to someone speaking who is wearing a mask, eye contact, gestures and tone become important cues for understanding the message.  You will need to practice consciously focusing on these things more than you normally would.

When speaking while wearing a mask, it is helpful to face the person you are talking to, and to speak a bit louder than you would without a mask. If you vary your tone of voice and are more intentional about your vocal inflections, you will better communicate your message and the feelings that go with it.  

In my discussions, I learned that the niqab sends a message of humility and modesty and limits communication, especially with men. Communication is brief and to the point for this reason. During COVID, people wear masks for totally different reasons. But it makes me wonder: Does wearing a mask make us all a little less approachable? Will a prolonged season of mask-wearing result in a plunge in meaningful communication? 

We live in a time when we have been forced to make adjustments in all areas of life. If we desire to communicate clearly and effectively during this era of mask-wearing, we will need to make an effort to learn new relational skills and habits. 

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