Of all the things I thought I’d be writing about at the start of 2020, how to communicate while wearing a face mask was not on my list.

But here we are, and the good news is, I’ve got some tips to help.

As many of you have probably discovered, wearing a face mask takes getting used to and although vital at this time, does create challenges for communication.

But while wearing a mask does impact how we communicate, it doesn’t mean we can’t communicate effectively. We can!

We just have to work a bit harder and get more conscious, deliberate and exaggerated in what we do.

(My big expressive hand gestures and crinkle eyed smiles were totally made for this!)

Here are 10 tips to help you communicate with a mask on:

1. Smile – really smile – nice and big, so it reaches and crinkles your eyes. While a fake or polite ‘social smile’ will be lost beneath a mask, a genuine smile will show clearly in your eyes.

2. Nod your head when you greet, acknowledge, agree with, or say yes to someone. Embrace the ‘tip of a hat’ signal your father or grandfather probably used. Similarly, shake your head when you say no.

3. Use hand gestures. Wave when you say hello; use thumbs up and thumbs down; point; and gesture to convey emotion, add emphasis, or get someone’s attention.

4. Ensure you have someone’s attention before you start speaking.

5. Stand front on and open. Not only does this make it easier to hear each other, but it also allows you to read each other’s body language. Try not to cross your arms (hard in a Victorian winter!) and keep your feet pointing towards the person to show you’re engaged in the conversation.

(Fun fact: Did you know the direction a person’s feet are pointing is one of the top ways our body communicates? Our feet indicate where we want to be, so if someone is speaking to you with their feet turned toward the door, they’re looking to wrap up the conversation.)

6. Speak louder, slower and more clearly. Masks muffle your words and can make conversations tricky to follow if you speak quietly or too quickly.

7. Use your eyebrows to convey your expression – just like an emoji! Practice in front of a mirror and see what you come up with. If nothing else, it’ll give you a good laugh.

8. Speaking of eyes, make eye contact. Eye contact is important for good communication at any time but even more so when you’re wearing a mask.

9. Pay particular attention to your tone of voice. With some of your facial expressions hidden behind the mask, your tone becomes a key communication tool. Sarcasm that would usually be matched with a smile to convey a joke can easily be mistaken as passive-aggressive.

10. Carry a pocket notepad and pen or use an app like Google Live Transcribe on your phone so you can communicate with someone who is hearing impaired (and relies on lip-reading). Be aware that this is a particularly tough time for people who are deaf or have hearing challenges. According to the Victorian Department of Health & Human Services​, masks can temporarily be removed if someone who is hearing impaired needs the ability to see your mouth for communication.

I hope these tips help you navigate these crazy times.

Stay safe, stay sane, and remember kindness is contagious too.

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Leah Mether helps people get out of their own way with the development of soft skills (which are really hard). She is a speaker, trainer, facilitator and mentor.