Patience key when wearing masks

Amanda Kvalsvig
Amanda Kvalsvig
As cases of the Covid-19 Omicron variant continue to climb, mask wearing is encouraged whenever you leave the house. But how much does non-verbal communication or body language suffer when our faces are covered?

The Star talked to University of Otago, Wellington epidemiologist Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, who is profoundly deaf with cochlear implants.

For Dr Kvalsvig, the main problem with masks is not being able to see faces as it means she is not able to lip-read or pick up other facial cues.

What type of understanding could be lost when two people wearing masks communicate?

When someone speaks with a mask their voice is muffled and that loss of sound quality can be a significant problem if there is background noise or if the listener has a mild degree of hearing impairment.

For others it is loss of visual information that is the problem.

New Zealand Sign Language users need to see faces too as facial expressions are part of the language - it’s not all in the hands.

What techniques can help improve understanding?

It is important for everyone to be consciously patient in their interactions when wearing masks.

For some, communication is helped by speaking more slowly and clearly; for others, non-verbal communication will be helpful.

My suggestion for speaking is say something twice, then if that doesn’t work find a different strategy.

What other non-verbal clues could help offset mask-wearing?

Strategies could include using maps or pointing the way instead of speaking directions.

Use text - focus on giving key words, names and numbers, not long sentences.

Non-verbal communication like nodding or shaking your head to say yes or no - but be aware these signals vary by individuals or cultures.

Signing - this is a great opportunity for every New Zealander to learn the NZ Sign Language alphabet.

Children are now also being asked to wear face masks. What impact could that have?

Some children can’t wear a mask and that’s fine - they can be protected by those around them.

Children who need to see faces to communicate are a group that need particular support.

It is not in their best interests for adults to take their masks off to talk to them, because that removes the protection of the mask.

Masks with a clear panel are becoming available and they should be distributed to those who need them.

For people who spend their day wearing a mask are there signs it could affect mental health?

For decades before the pandemic, medical and surgical staff have worn masks all day in challenging environments.

The experience from this setting is a well-fitting mask should be comfortable to wear all day.

If a mask is not comfortable, it is worth experimenting by adjusting until it feels right. Respirator masks (eg N95) are good because they keep the mask away from your mouth and they are easy to breathe through.

New Zealand could benefit enormously by providing these masks to everyone - they are not only more effective, they are easier to wear.





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