By Courtney Petherick

Facemasks have been actively promoted as an effective preventative measure against COVID-19. They are variously encouraged or mandated in many indoor settings where social distancing is not possible, and this is unlikely to change any time soon. Accordingly, dispute resolution specialists, as experts in communication, are needing to adapt to the impact of facemasks.

For most of us communicating with facemasks is more difficult than with no masks. We know that facemasks can muffle speech (Vrij & Hartwig, 2021; Palmiero et al., 2016) and obstruct facial expressions that provide most of our nonverbal communication (Lee & Hart, 2022). This article examines current research on the relationship between facemasks and communication to explore how communication is impacted by wearing a facemask and what strategies can be implemented to facilitate more successful communication between those wearing masks.

Impacts of facemasks on listening and speech perception

Facemasks reduce a listener’s ability to clearly understand what another person has said (Johnson, 2016). Research shows that when a speaker wears an N95 respirator, the listener’s ability to accurately hear single words decreases compared to no mask (Nguyen et al., 2021). Increasing the distance between a speaker and listener (Johnson, 2016; Lee & Hart, 2022), and increasing the level of background noise further decrease a listener’s ability to clearly understand what is said (Palmiero et al., 2016; Nguyen et al., 2021). When listening to a sound, the perceived volume decreases the further away from the speaker you are (Communicating through a Facemask, 2020). Simple sentences are not understood 27% of the time with distances as close as 60 centimetres (Johnson, 2016). Speaking to a person at a distance when wearing a facemask decreases how accurately a person understands the spoken words to an even greater degree (Nguyen et al., 2021). Thus, as dispute resolvers we are working in an environment where the wearing of facemasks is likely to be negatively impacting on a person’s ability to accurately hear and understand the words another person is saying.

Impacts of facemasks on non-verbal communication

Facemasks also significantly reduce a person’s ability to understand the spoken message as it reduces the amount of facial expressions that are conveyed with the message (Okazaki et al., 2021; Kong et al., 2021; Pazhoohi et al., 2021). Two-thirds of communication is conveyed through non-verbal communication that includes facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice and body language (Lee & Hart, 2022). By covering more than half the face with a facemask, information that is usually conveyed through slight movements of the chin, lips, cheeks, and nose is not received by the listener (Blazhenkova et al., 2022). Emotions conveyed through the bottom half of the face include happiness, surprise, and disgust (Blazhenkova et al., 2022). The emotions of sadness, anger and fear are less reliant on the bottom half of the face and identification of these emotions are arguably less impacted by facemasks (Blazhenkova et al., 2022). However, recent studies have demonstrated that the accuracy of identification of emotions while wearing a mask are reduced for identification of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and neutrality (Pazhoohi et al., 2021; Marini et al., 2021). In addition to causing misinterpretation of emotions, facemasks have been found to impact the perceived intensity of expression, with intended emotions (except for anger) being perceived as less intense and unintended emotions (except for sadness) being perceived as more intense (Tsantani et al., 2022). Recognition of emotions of elderly faces is far more difficult than younger faces (Blazhenkova et al., 2022). Thus, wearing facemasks removes a significant amount of information and can lead to misunderstanding between parties.

Strategies to facilitate successful communication when wearing a facemask

As facemasks significantly reduce a listener’s ability to accurately understand the words and emotions of a speaker, it is important for the speaker, and to some extent the listener, to use strategies to support effective communication. Some suggested strategies include:

  • Check for understanding and request clarification (Communicating through a facemask, 2020).
  • Reduce background noise (i.e., turn fans off, close doors, turn off radio or background sound, place fabric on the floors and walls to absorb sound) (Palmiero et al., 2016; Communicating through a facemask, 2020).
  • Reduce the distance between speakers or use microphone and electronic speaker systems to amplify the sound source (Lee & Hart, 2022).
  • Speak slightly louder and more slowly than you would usually. Do not shout as this will further distort your speech (Communicating through a facemask, 2020).
  • Use alternative communication strategies such as having written information, use a live transcription app, use pictures, and increase your use of natural gestures (Communicating through a facemask, 2020; Johnson, 2016).

Concluding remarks

There is every likelihood that we will be facing the challenge of communicating with facemasks for years to come. Normalising their use, and acknowledging their challenges is the starting point to improving communication. Facilitating parties to focussing on specific and generally simple strategies to improve communication increases the listener’s ability to accurately understand the message conveyed, both through speech and facial expressions. By taking the time to check for understanding, those facilitating discussions and negotiations will further support more effective communication between the parties and promote greater satisfaction in the process.


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