Reading the Mask: Speechreading Basics

I’m as tired of this pandemic as the next person. But if anything good comes out of this, it could be the world’s OMG moment about the difficulty in communicating with masks.

This speechreading nightmare is not limited to people with confirmed hearing loss; mask-reading is proving to be a challenge for good-of-hearing people as well. Even the Hearing Husband has had moments of not quite “getting” what a moving mask is saying.

This current dilemma demonstrates how much information a person with hearing loss collects from a speaker’s actual mouth – not just what comes out of it. The lips, teeth, jaw movements, eyes and eyebrows play important roles in conveying a message. In addition to facial expressions, speechreaders (people who depend on speechreading) also take in a person’s hand gestures and body language. This type of information-gathering is something we all do, in nanoseconds, often without realizing it.

Speakers should do their best to match their facial expressions to what they are saying, otherwise my people can get really confused. We don’t always catch the tone – sad, happy, amazed – in the speaker’s voice. I mean, would you talk about your beloved pet passing away with a smile on your face? Would you express joyous love for someone with a frown? The same theory should apply to everything you say – don’t wear a face that conflicts with what you say.

Another important clue-giver is context; knowing what we’re talking about helps people with hearing loss to fill in the blanks when visual clues don’t help – specifically, with speech sounds that never make it as far as the lips. More than half of speech occurs inside the mouth and throat.

Say the work ‘cake’. I can’t see your lips move with this word; if you’re not smiling and it’s not your birthday and you haven’t been discussing the pandemic baking boom – how am I supposed to guess you said cake? You might have said ‘take’ or maybe ‘rake’! Saying ‘make’ and ‘bake’ involve moving your lips and your voice is also needed to say ‘make’. So if you said, “Hey, let’s bake! How about we make a cake?”, chances are I would understand ‘cake’.

See how simple this is – and how big a problem we have with masks?

In recent brief conversations with masked service workers, such as grocery checkout people (what’s the correct name for that job?), I quickly go to my regular clue-givers. Hmm, not getting much info from body language or hands because she is moving my grocery items over the scanner, and her hands aren’t free to make possibly enlightening gestures. But hey, she just picked up my fennel bulb and motions it at me with her eyebrows raised. I take a wild guess that she’s confused by this odd-looking veggie; I say “fennel” and she nods “ah, right” and scans it through.

I’m good, huh?

But then she says something else and since we’re not done yet, she can’t be saying “have a nice rest of your day”. What does she want? I really don’t want to drag out the grocery shopping ordeal, and I forgot to have my phone’s Otter speech-to-text app ready to go. Desperate, I ask, “Are you asking if I want to redeem any points today?” Your grocery store may have a similar system: you gain points every time you shop and finally, after two months of points-saving, you have enough for a free banana. If she nods or makes a murmuring sound and her eyes hint at a little smile, I respond, “no thank you”.

As we all get used to masks, our communication is improving, thanks partly to better speechreading skills which can improve naturally. But if you’re not good-of-hearing, as I am not, use a speech-to-text the next time you hit a checkout counter. Explain what it is, find a safe spot to hold it, and then read the cashier’s words as she speaks. If that doesn’t work, try saying this, “Thank you, I’m not redeeming points today, this is fennel and that’s a lemon, and thank you for your service!”

And hopefully, she will understand you from behind your mask.

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Gael,

    There are so many clear mask choices now. Life changing for me!

    Responseppe.com in Alaska, has a great, full face mask that ensbkes you to breathe. The company is connected with Northland Audiology in Juneau.

    A company in Colorado and several, in Israel, are also making the masks.
    If I could I would send you a great YouTube that shows how to make the clear mask. But, this site isn’t letting me copy and paste here. You can write to me and I will send you the info.

    No need to suffer.

    I’m a retired SLP in ISRAEL, who is very HOH.

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