Why it’s so hard to understand someone with a mask on

If you are having a hard time understanding someone wearing a mask- you’re not alone.

Those with even a mild hearing loss will notice a significant decrease in their ability to understand someone with a mask on. The reason is because we all use facial cues to help us understand speech sounds, we may not be able to hear.

Here is an example: Let’s think about the English language for a minute. The word “cat” is made up of a vowel and two consonants. 

The “a” sound is a low pitch sound, so it is easier for most people to hear. However, the “c” and the “t” are not easily heard if you have a high frequency hearing loss because the “c” and “t” sounds are soft high pitch sounds. So, if we can’t hear the “c” and the “t” we rely on the facial cues. Our brains are piecing together all the information and we don’t even realize it until someone looks away from us while talking…or has a mask on!

This is why people frequently tell us that “I can hear them; I just can’t understand them.” It’s because they can hear part of the word, the “a,” but not the “c” or maybe not the “t” either. So then based on the context of the sentence the blanks were filled. Is she talking about my “hat”? Or our friend named “Pat?”

One of the most common hearing losses is called a high frequency hearing loss. This means a person can hear low frequencies fine, so this person may perceive sound as normal because they can hear low frequencies at a normal or quiet level. However, just because you have normal hearing in the low frequencies doesn’t exclude you from having a high frequency hearing loss.

Another common problem you will have if you encounter someone with a mask on is that they will sound like they are mumbling. This is a common complaint because those with high frequency hearing loss hear the low frequencies in speech much better than the high-pitched ones. This is the exact reason why everyone sounds like they mumble! I dare you to say the phrase “I took my hat off” without pronouncing any consonants! “I OO Y A AW”….. yeah sounds like mumbling to me!

Strategies to help you better understand someone with a mask on:

  1. If the speaker says something that you didn’t hear, ask him to rephrase his statement rather than repeat it. Chances are if a speaker repeats something you didn’t understand the first time, you will not understand it the second time. However, if the speaker re-words his statement, giving more context, you will have a better chance of understanding him. For example, someone on the phone asks you, “Have you ever been to our location before?” Since you did not understand the question, you ask him to rephrase. He responds, “We are located on Smith and Vine. Have you ever been a patient here?” The added context makes the question easier to understand.
  2. Ask for the information in writing. For example, most physicians will provide you with a discharge sheet after your visit. However, since wearing a mask has become a habit adapted by many you may encounter this issue in places where discharge sheets are not common. A good idea if you do not understand the person wearing a mask is to ask them to follow up with a telephone call or email!
  3. One last tip is to repeat back to the person what you think he said if you might have misheard him. He will tell you whether you are correct.
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