5 Fast Ways to Make Lipreading Work with Facemasks

I’m a lipreader; here are some easy and science-backed ways to make Coronavirus communication suck less.

A woman in a blue disposable face mask makes a thumbs-up gesture.
Tip 3: Thumbs-up to gestures! Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

About 15% of the population have hearing loss or lipread, so mask use in public spaces is making communicating a lot harder all round. So, before whipping it off, what can we do?

1. Listen Up

When someone tells you they lipread, showing you understand that we’re finding it hard and not being rude when we ask for a repeat or clarification — or worse, ignoring your question as we don’t hear it — goes a long way.

2. Ask Us How

We know how to work with our hearing best. We may ask you to repeat yourself, or speak more loudly, or use simpler phrasing with more gesturing. In many cases, being willing to repeat yourself is the kindest and most helpful thing you can do.

3. Common gestures help everyone

Waves, thumbs-ups, finger numbers, nodding and shaking your head; human gestures reinforce and clarify — and not just for lipreaders. Studies show masked misunderstandings happen to everyone but that eye-contact and gesturing can reduce errors dramatically.

4. Do We Really Need to Talk?

Don’t feel bad about skipping chit chat — it takes us a lot of mental energy to understand speech, even more so when we’re both in a mask. For lip-readers, a smile and thumbs-up is often the best interaction.

5. It’s Important, Keep Writing Tools To Hand

Remember the stakes of the communication and plan accordingly. In a high-stakes setting, such as medical/financial information, clarity is paramount. Having a paper and pen handy, writing on your smartphone, or texting/emailing — all these are easy fixes anyone can do.

Bonus tip — Don’t Stress, We’ve Got You

Yes, it sucks a bit that I can’t lipread you. Yes, it makes things a little harder for us to talk. But we lipreaders have had a lot of practice at this and we can make it work if you listen to us.

Let’s help each other out — and help everyone to stay safe.

A woman in a blue top holds foil helium balloons. Her face is completely covered by a yellow smiley-emoticon balloon.
Put on your happy face and let’s do this. Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

Want more information, or to know more about the science behind it? Check out my longer article on this, with bonus science and snark, “Lipreading can work with a mask if you simplify, gesture, and do some joint problem-solving”, previously published in Better Humans.

Writer and project manager from Cork, Ireland. Past jobs include: PA, games store manager, Zombie steward, promo person, carnie and Santa’s sweariest Elf.

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