If you are a fan of audiobooks or podcasts, then you know how much can be gained from speech without sight. Simply listening to a person speak can capture a wide range of emotion, nuance, and connotations of language through fine-grained differences in the way words are pronounced and contextualized. However, did you know that visual cues are another powerful component of how we understand speech?
Although it is possible to gather meaning from speech in isolation of the other senses, our sense of sight is an incredible help in the process of understanding. Whether through facial expressions or body language, we use what we see to understand what we hear. What happens when that visual assistance is impossible?
Masks pose this precise question, so let’s take this opportunity to consider what can be done to deal with masks in communication, particularly for those who have hearing loss.
The Challenge of Masked Conversation
Masks make conversation difficult in a number of ways. In the first place, masks muffle the sound of speech. For the same reasons that masks protect us from the aerosol and saliva that emits from mouths during speech, they also prevent sound from traveling as easily as it otherwise might.
Sound is simply a vibration of pressure against air particles, so masks do moderate the power of that sound pressure. In addition to the muffling effects of masks, they also make it impossible to witness the mouth in motion. Those with advanced hearing loss or hearing impairment tend to watch mouths move in order to add to the sound they can gather from speech.
This process of “lip reading” can happen consciously or subconsciously. Whether we realize it or not, the visual cues we gather from the shape of a mouth in speech can help us fill in the gaps in what is being said. Beyond the literal process of lip reading, we also watch subtle movement in the face in order to gather emotional and other connotations of speech. Have you ever found yourself misinterpreting a text message?
This struggle to understand is largely due to the lack of connotation and context. Watching a person speak supplies this added information that implies earnest effusions of emotion, sincerity, or even sarcasm. Of course, masks obscure this wealth of visual information that might be able to otherwise inform the communication process.
How to Assist Masked Communication
If you are interacting with a person who has hearing loss, consider the ways that you can assist the process of communication while wearing a mask. Although you will not want to move closer than six feet of distance in order to maintain social protection, you can move a bit closer to make your voice more easily heard.
Similarly, you can raise the volume of speech to account for the lost volume due to the muffling effect of a mask. When it comes to the lost visual information, our eyes migrate to eyes and upper cheeks to get what assistance we can find. Other forms of body language can help greatly, and gestures, when appropriate, can fill in the gaps in understanding. Above all, trying to speak from within the same room, particularly when it is quiet, is the best way to accommodate hearing loss in a conversation while wearing a mask.
Hearing Loss Treatment
Beyond these accommodation strategies, the best thing that can be done to support a person with hearing loss is to provide moral support through the process of seeking treatment. Encouraging your loved one to get a hearing test is the first step, but your role does not stop there. When the time comes to get assistance from hearing aids, you can help navigate the process.
By attending appointments together, assisting the process of hearing aid fitting, and also guiding your loved one through the process of learning to use the aids, your role in terms of moral support can be invaluable. Just as you can help make a masked conversation easier in many ways, you can also make the process of adopting and learning to use hearing aids much easier, as well.