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Communicating Through a Face Mask

With the start of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, face masks have become the new normal. More than 50 countries around the world, including the United States, have some form of mask requirements. With approximately 15% of Americans over the age of 18 reporting some level of hearing loss, it is not surprising that more and more are feeling frustrated when trying to communicate when one of the speakers is wearing a face mask.

Where is the breakdown?

There has been a significant amount of research completed since the introduction of COVID-19. Part of that research has included the difficulties associated with communication while a speaker is wearing a face mask. It has been said that standard medical face masks may attenuate, or reduce, the higher frequency speech signals (2-7 kHz) by 2 to 3 dB and N95 masks can attenuate the high frequency speech signals up to 12dB. These affected frequencies are what commonly provide speech its clarity.Also, with the use of face coverings a listener is losing more than just clarity of speech, but valuable visual cues. Despite many not being true “lip readers”, some research suggests that a listener may rely 25-30% on lip movement and facial features to gain a complete understanding of the spoken word. This becomes even more important when there is background noise present.Between the attenuation of speech frequencies and the loss of facial cues, both those with and without documented hearing loss are affected. However, those with hearing loss are much more likely to struggle when speaking with someone using a face mask.

What steps can be taken to communicate effectively with those wearing face coverings?

It may be time to contact your local audiologist for a hearing evaluation. Untreated hearing loss can lead to significant frustrations during everyday communication with or without face coverings.Create a successful communication environment by following these simple communication strategies:

  • Ask the speaker to speak slowly and clearly with good enunciation.
  • Reduce background noise whenever possible.
  • Request the speaker rephrase their sentence rather than repeating it; this provides the listener with additional information that they can build upon to create the whole picture.
  • Make sure the speaker is facing the listener; using good social distancing of course.
  • If all else fails, try using a piece of paper and pen to get the point across.

Here at the Oklahoma Hearing Center we are committed to helping you succeed in even the most challenging listening situations. While no one could have predicted the recent events, now more than ever, we are prepared to aid you in whatever way possible. If you think you need to have your hearing evaluated, please call us at 405-546-4280 to schedule an appointment with one of our audiologists. Before we help you hear, we listen.Farris R. Stroupe, Au.D.