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(Un)masking covid communication challenges

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

Phone, keys, wallet… mask. 2020 was the start of many things; for some, the first time they actually spoke to their neighbours, for others the first time they were legally obliged to cancel plans without having to make an excuse. But, for the many people who have been fortunate enough to avoid the more serious impacts of the covid-19 pandemic, one of the biggest changes has been the arrival of the face mask.

Last we checked, over 50 countries worldwide have made face masks compulsory in some capacity in public spaces. Chances are that most people reading this will be accustomed to the quirks of covering your mouth and (in case anyone needed a reminder) nose in public.

If they are so ubiquitous, what’s all the fuss about?

Firstly, speaking on behalf of glasses wearers everywhere, we have a long list of steamy complaints. Secondly, and perhaps most suitably for a language service provider, for some it has impacted our communication skills: how we are heard and understood when speaking with a mask.

© Institut für Lern-Innovation

Naturally, any member of the deaf community could have predicted this ‘new’ problem, as could members of the many cultures where face coverings are already commonplace for hygienic or religious reasons. However, in plenty of cultural settings, until recently, wearing a mask may have been regarded as suspicious and completely outside the norm, rather than the altruistic gesture we associate it with today. Not only that, it created a physical barrier to something as simple as expressing ourselves.

But isn’t the old adage that ‘93% of communication is non-verbal’?

Yes, that is how the story goes. But did you know that well-known statistic is dubious and based on just two studies from 1976? Typically, our facial features, speech and other gestures do all play a part in expression but, scientifically speaking, we’re not just being fussy: high pitches aren’t able to make it through the mask material and ‘f,’ ‘s,’ ‘sh,’ ‘th,’ sounds in particular are often lost. Some tips to counteract this include better intonation, rewording rather than repeating your sentence and this one goes out to the Brits abroad: avoiding repeating the same thing at a higher volume.

The most famous 'smize' of them all

Perhaps our issue, then, is more the ability to express ourselves emotionally. Only now that our mouths are covered do we notice that it is our main way of conveying happiness or kindness – something we need now more than ever. Don’t fret though – we still have our eyes. Time to perfect the ‘smize’ (a neologism meaning ‘smiling with your eyes’) or, better yet, the Cadbury’s ‘eyebrow dance’ advert.

What does this mean in the long term?

Restrictions are not necessarily obstacles; we are all used to adapting and compensating for a lack of information depending on circumstances. Perhaps now we will develop a ‘mask voice’ to go alongside our ‘phone voice’. Even better, what if wearing a mask actually ‘forced’ people to listen more carefully?


Written by Amy Reid, Words in Translation Account Manager


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