What Did You Say?

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? We all use facial cues to help us understand speech sounds we may not be able to hear.

Masks and Communication

"Speech Banana" audiogram of common sounds and their frequencies.

image: DiegoSLP

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” is 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, based on the context of the sentence that word was in they have to fill in the blanks. For example: “Is she talking bout my “hat? Or our friend named “Pat?”

One of the most common types of hearing loss is called a high-frequency hearing loss. This means a person can hear low frequencies fine, so they 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 for people with high-frequency hearing loss because they hear the low frequencies in speech much better than the high pitched ones, as illustrated in the example above. This is the exact reason why everyone sounds like they mumble! Try to say the phrase “I took my hat off” without pronouncing any consonants! “I OO MY A-AW”….. yep. Sounds like mumbling to me!

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

  • 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.
  • 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 adopted 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!
  • Repeat back to the person what you think he said if you might have misheard him. The person will tell you whether you are correct.

Let Us Help You Communicate!

We’re opening our office back up, in accordance with Oregon state guidelines, on May 18th! We will have some extra safety precautions and sanitization protocols in place to protect you and your loved ones, and Dr. Serpa has a specialized mask to aid in communicating with you. We are ready to see you! Contact us today so you can reconnect with your world.