Behind the Face Mask 

Image by Gabriele Lässer from Pixabay

The Spanish government has started to relax lockdown restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus. In Madrid, we spent two months inside our homes, under strict measures, only being allowed outside for a few distinct purposes such as to go to the supermarket. On Saturday 2nd May, we were finally able to go for a walk and to exercise outdoors. 

With many people currently wearing face masks in public places to help reduce COVID-19 transmissions, I have realised that this poses a challenge for people with hearing loss.

I have single-sided deafness (SSD), the result of a sudden hearing loss in 2016. I have a profound hearing loss in my left ear and functional hearing in my right ear. Although I am thankful for my remaining hearing, having only one working ear comes with unique challenges. 

Sound localisation is a skill enabled by having two working ears; the mind registers which ear has heard the sound first, to determine where the sound is coming from. With only one hearing ear, the audio always enters my right ear. This means that all sound seems to be coming from my right side. 

The other main difficulty that comes with SSD, is the inability to hear speech clearly amongst background noise. With one working ear, there is difficulty in filtering out unimportant sounds when trying to understand speech in noisy environments, such as cafes or restaurants.

Now, there is the added challenge of the face mask.

Muffled Sounds and Lipreading

In attempting to communicate with people wearing face masks, namely the local greengrocer, it has only recently occurred to me how much I rely on lipreading. 

When speech is unclear, I often guess the general theme or significance, using the tone of voice as a guide. I instinctively look towards the speaker’s mouth and watch the shapes and movement of their lips to give me clues about the content. The muffled sound that comes through a face mask, is never clear. Now, with the majority of people wearing face masks, lips and faces are no longer visible to read and I am completely unaided. I am guessing without a hint.

Concealed Expressions 

In addition to concentrating on the sound of speech in conversation, I also focus on the reactions of the speaker. For example, if someone is telling a story and smiling, I know that a smile is an appropriate response, regardless of how much of the dialogue I am able to hear. Expressions are not visible through face masks. 

Customers of a local shop were being permitted to enter one-at-a-time, every time someone exited. Whilst at the front of the queue, the sound of a loud cough startled me and my automatic reaction was to quickly turn around. I made eye contact with a woman who was standing behind me in the queue. Without the ability to identify the location of a sound source, I didn’t know if the woman behind me had been the one who had coughed. I hadn’t turned around in judgement. Loud sounds startle me. As our eyes met, I smiled a friendly smile but it suddenly struck me that this had gone unseen, concealed by my face mask. I quickly turned around. I didn’t want to make the woman feel uncomfortable. 

Whatever our hearing capacity, we rely so much on expressions to understand how others are feeling. 

Developing Communication Strategies

Whilst paying for my shopping, the greengrocer uttered something from behind his face mask. I didn’t hear him clearly. I looked at him and was about to ask him to repeat himself. He quickly acknowledged my pause and spoke again in a clearer voice. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t hear the second time either. Again, he acknowledged my pause and this time endeavoured to help me understand by using hand gestures. He pointed to the top of the card reader. Ah! Do I want a receipt? 

I wonder if everyone is finding it difficult to communicate through face masks. Perhaps people are becoming accustomed to speaking more clearly. Maybe we are unwittingly developing strategies to break down barriers and make communication clearer and more accessible.  Perhaps the impact of face masks on communication will ultimately be a positive one.