Masks have become an everyday part of our lives and are likely to remain in our lives for some time to come.
A friend of mine, a nurse who works in a hospice, was talking about how hard it is to care for someone at the end of their life while wearing a mask. She described a conversation she had with a patient who had said something funny. She said to them, “I know you can’t see through my mask, but I’m smiling at you!” The patient said, “I know. I can hear it in your voice!”
This got me thinking about how the non-verbal ways in which we communicate or convey emotion are lost when wearing a mask.
A smile is such a powerful expression to reassure, soften words and convey warmth. I am a great one for a sympathetic grimace, or a downturned mouth to show concern or sadness in response to something said to me. But that isn’t going to fly anymore. Behind my mask, none of that will be seen.
So unless you have highly mobile eyebrows or very expressive eyes, we are going to have to step up how we communicate behind our masks.
This was brought into sharp focus a few weeks ago when I was at ELFT’s COVID Vaccination Centre in Westfield Stratford. I was overseeing a visit by a TV film crew* and chatting up members of the public to see if they would be agreeable to being filmed. As it turned out, I was pushing on an open door. The 70-year-olds attending were pretty much skipping in – glad to be getting their first vaccine, happy to be out of the house for the first time in months, full of chat and banter, and very happy to talk to the media about it!
I was beckoned over by a couple who indicated they were hearing impaired, worried they would not hear their name and would miss their turn. It was resolved in moments. I was able have a word with the floor manager. When it was their turn, she went over to them and led them to the vaccination pod. I saw them leaving very happily. We gave each other a universal thumbs-up!
However, I was appalled that we had not thought about their needs. As a result of that day, we are now better geared up.
So here are my top tips for making sure that, like my nurse friend, you communicate clearly while wearing a mask:
Dramatic gestures! You might need to use your hands more to convey your meaning. (Jazz hands!) Or opt for more down-to-earth gestures like a thumbs-up or a wave. Nodding is good too.
Verbalise your silences. Behind a mask, your silence is open to interpretation and could be unnerving. So speak, even if to say … “I don’t know what to say!” or “I need to think about that”, or like my friend in the hospice, “You’ve made me smile!”
Speak Your Smile. In short, if you find yourself smiling at someone behind your mask, you should probably say so.
Talk up your emotions. People won’t be able to read your facial expression so you need to help them. Statements like “that’s made me feel a bit sad” or “I feel chuffed/pleased/nervous/worried about what you’ve just said’ can replace the message your facial expression would usually convey. If you don’t do this, you risk being misinterpreted or misunderstood.
Slow down. Speech can be muffled behind a mask but don’t be tempted to pull down your mask. Try some practical steps such as slowing down, using fewer words, shorter sentences and pausing in between sentences to let your words sink in.
Narrate your actions. Ensure that long silences don’t come over as being surly or unfriendly. Describe and chat through what you are doing. Think of it like a radio show – your audience can’t see your facial expressions so you need to keep them engaged. People are not mind readers. In a mask, we need to make extra effort.
But don’t drive your colleagues mad with your ‘David Attenborough style’ monologue of your daily activities – unless you’re off to the kitchen to make them a cuppa! “That’ll be milk and no sugar for me, thanks! And just for you to know – I’m smiling!”
*The OTLpr team have been facilitating media visits to the Westfield Stratford COVID Vaccination Centre since it opened at the end of January 2021. This involves COVID testing all crews and presenters prior to any filming or photography, liaising with the Westfield PR and Security team, ensuring that the media presence doesn’t affect the flow of people, supporting infection control requirements, and identifying staff and members of the public who are willing to be featured. The team have also supported the centre with publicity, signage, liaising with TfL, social media and hosted high profile NHS spokespeople.
** With thanks to Aileen Nicholson, one of the best and most caring nurses I have ever worked with.
This blog was written by Janet Flaherty