Amid COVID-19, phrases like “I can’t hear you!” and “I’m sorry, what did you say?” have become common ones. For both people with normal hearing and hearing loss, face masks and physical distancing can cause communication difficulties. Since communication is important for social interaction and our mental health, let’s talk about some tips and strategies we can use as we continue to follow safety measures.
Patience is key
It’s obvious that masks can muffle sound and take away your ability to read lips and see facial expressions. They decrease the sound of the person speaking, which may have a negative effect on the clarity for the listener. Physical distancing can also dampen the sound.
This can make it more problematic to pick up spoken language, especially for people with hearing aids. The best advice is to take a deep breath and be patient with each other.
Be careful with hearing devices
Those with hearing aids or cochlear implants may find some discomfort with masks around their ears in addition to their devices and must take extra caution when removing their masks so they do not dislodge and lose their devices.
One solution for masks interfering with your hearing devices is to find or make one that ties behind your head by attaching it to a clip or two buttons that can be placed lower than your ears. People with hearing aids should seek additional retention solutions and people with receiver in the canal hearing aids can add a retention hook.
You can also create a solution to tether the aids to your clothes with a fishing line, glasses lanyard or ear suspenders. Remember, family members and care givers can also assist in removing your mask to reduce the risk of a lost device.
Try a clear mask
Clear masks are great for people who prefer and rely on lip reading — they will appreciate the see-through masks allowing access to visualize the speaker’s lips. These masks are becoming more available but do have some functional limitations. Depending on the quality of mask, it can dampen sound more than other masks. They also tend to fog up as the speaker talks so it is recommended to add a defogging material to them.
Ask for spoken language
People who typically rely on visual cues can also ask for spoken language to be transcribed through paper and pencil or a speech-to-text app.
Switch your settings
If you use a hearing aid, you can also adjust the settings while wearing a mask. Try turning your volume up as well as increasing the high frequency sound to improve the dampened sound. If you have an assistive device like a remote microphone, this can also help by having your conversation partner wear it or hold it near their mouth.
Some aids even have a feature available on their smart phone that turns their phone into a remote microphone, which also is known as “live listen.” You can then extend the remote microphone to the speaker which will transmit the sound directly to the listener’s hearing aids as the speaker communicates. This helps the listener hear better as it takes away the loss of sound due to distance from the speaker.
Bring on the body language
Communication strategies are always recommended to people with hearing loss but can be helpful for everyone, especially when following safety measures like masking. Try the following tips for better communication:
- Get your communication partner’s attention by waving or saying their name before talking so they are able to turn to you and focus on the conversation.
- Since facial expressions may be difficult to see, it may be helpful to use hand gestures and body language.
- When speaking to someone, try to talk comfortably — loud and clear and at a slow pace.
- Ask one another if you understand what is being said. If not, you should rephrase it or write it down.
- Moving to a quieter and well-lit area will also improve communication between you and your partner.
Each person may use a different blend of these approaches and tips to communicate better while following COVID-19 safety measures. If you have noticed increased difficulty hearing, especially with the masks, it is a good time to see a doctor for a hearing test. We want to help you in this challenging communication world to hear your best. Mask up and stay safe!
Having trouble hearing? Find a doctor near you.
About the author
Alicia Hutchison AuD, CCC-A, is a clinical audiologist at Baylor Scott & White – Marble Falls Specialty Clinic. She attended graduate school from the University of Pittsburgh. She finds it rewarding helping patients of all ages achieve their listening goals.