I can’t hear you with your mask on!

by Dr. Jennifer Stinson

By now, we have all seen the memes/jokes on the internet about wearing masks. You probably have seen it yourself; some people don’t wear them correctly.  Some remove them before talking, and then some carry them around and never seem to put them on. You may have also noticed a challenge with other people being able to hear well when you are wearing a mask and trying to social distance. Or maybe you never thought you had a problem hearing, but now you are experiencing trouble hearing in the checkout line at the grocery store or ordering food.  You just can’t seem to make out what the person is saying.  You might think to yourself, if they could just take their mask off, I could hear them! Well, as the kids say these days, “the struggle is REAL.” As an Audiologist, my first instinct is that I wish we could all have clear masks so that everyone can read lips or get some visual cues. While that is a very valid suggestion, we don’t all have access to those masks, nor do they provide the appropriate amount of protection in some situations. 

An article recently published in The Hearing Review identifies exactly how degraded the speech signal can get with different styles of masks. As you can imagine, the N95 masks attenuate the most, but even a simple surgical mask degrades high frequencies, which are most important for speech understanding. 

I have outlined some helpful tips to use during interactions with your clients, patients, or even friends while wearing masks. (Similar tips are given in The Hearing Review article referenced)

  • For those of you in the medical field and have a patient struggling to hear you, ask if they have hearing aids or if you can refer them for a hearing test. You can even invest in a small amplifier to use with your patients.
  • Be sure to have the other person’s attention when you speak.
  • Don’t shout
  • Reduce other noise in the room when possible
  • Speak slower and rephrase instead of repeating the same thing
  • If you are with a co-worker or staff member, ask them to repeat the instructions or questions to the client or patient.

Unfortunately, most people don’t want to admit to having trouble hearing. Regardless if you already have glasses, hearing loss is still hard to deal with. There is often a stigma associated with wearing hearing aids, but we must recognize how important it is to hear and for others to hear us. When you don’t hear, you are missing or losing part of a conversation, which can lead to frustration, social isolation, and even depression. The take-home point here is that masks are not easy for any of us, but it’s especially important to ensure you or those you interact with are hearing the conversation!

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