Even though we’re now several months into wearing face masks in public, some aspects continue to be a challenge. Beyond the facts that they’re uncomfortable and have become politically divisive, face masks have also made it a lot harder to communicate.
Sometimes we’re speaking with a person who doesn’t understand us clearly, and many people instinctively pull their mask down to repeat themselves. Does it get your point across? Sure, but it also defeats the purpose of wearing a face mask—so please, don’t do that. Instead, we need to improve at communicating with our masks on.
In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Dustin York, an associate professor and the director of undergraduate and graduate communications at Maryville University, explains why forms of nonverbal communication are particularly important when we’re wearing a face mask.
“In situations where there’s an incongruity between what’s spoken verbally and what’s displayed nonverbally, people instinctively lend greater weight to the latter,” he writes. “Unfortunately, if your expressions are concealed by a mask, that can happen more often.”
To help us navigate these challenges, York has provided us with the following tips for becoming more effective nonverbal communicators in situations involving wearing a face mask. Here’s what to do and what to avoid to make sure you get your point across without risking anyone’s safety.
Avoid clear masks
When face masks with a clear plastic panel started popping up a few months ago, it seemed like a great solution to our communication problems. But, as York points out, they tend to fog up easily, so they’re not ideal. The exception to this, he says, is if you’re communicating with a person or group who may be hard of hearing.
Use your ‘mask voice’
Even if you don’t typically pay attention to the way you speak, it’s a necessity when you’re wearing a face mask. This is something Lifehacker’s Senior Parenting Editor Meghan Moravcik Walbert wrote about earlier this month, as it pertains to communicating with children. Turns out, avoiding “mask muffle” and talking like a kindergarten teacher are good strategies at any age.
Be an active listener
This is a good idea regardless of whether you’re wearing a face mask, but practicing active listening—including nodding along to the conversation or a well-placed “mmm-hmm”—can also make a difference. York suggests paraphrasing what someone just said to you (using phrases like “So what you mean is…” or “What I’m hearing you say is…”) as a way to affirm their feelings and help develop a better rapport.
Use more gestures and body language
Specifically, York recommends increasing your level of gesturing by about 10%. Just don’t overdo it and veer into mime territory. You can also mirror the other person, imitating their body language (in a respectful, non-obvious way) as another way to show you’re actively listening and build rapport, York says.
Keep your toes and torso aligned
According to York, the direction our feet are pointing during a conversation can signal our interest. For instance, in a situation where you’re speaking with someone but have your toes pointed towards the nearest door, you’re letting the person know that you’d rather be someplace else. To avoid this, make sure that your toes and torso are aligned and facing your conversation partner.
Smile with your eyes
Who knew a years-old tip from Tyra Banks on a modeling reality TV show would be so relevant today? Whether or not you use her terminology of “smizing,” using your eyes to show a person that you’re smiling can help convey that you’re friendly, York says.
Zoom if you must
While York says that communicating with someone in-person is usually preferable, there are times when an unmasked Zoom call is the most effective option.