The Challenge of Mask Communication

Though masks help protect from coronavirus, people are finding it difficult to read facial expressions.

Published: Jul 2, 2020

By most standards, the request seemed a bit surprising given the current pandemic: please come in for a panel interview. And don’t forget your mask.

And yet the logistics of a masked interview are exactly what Gabby Lennox, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach, found herself discussing with a client recently. “The whole conversation changed, and we ended up talking about other things the body can do to compensate for the loss of facial expressions,” she says.

While many interviews are still happening via phone or video call, how workers communicate with masks on—be it in an interview or sitting around a conference table for a monthly budget meeting—is a not-too-distant conundrum for professionals. Indeed, a survey by the recruiting software firm Jobvite conducted in February and then again in April showed that 77% of respondents said one of their preferred methods for job interviews—even in the current COVID-19 job market—was in person. Meanwhile, 67% preferred phone calls and 45% preferred video calls.

With half the face masked, communication experts say it’s paramount to incorporate—and in turn, study—the body language of yourself and others.

And with masks not going away anytime soon—particularly as more states and municipalities are mandating their use in public—learning how to communicate with cloth covering half a face is going to be paramount. Here are some tips for veiled words.

Facial Expression 101.

We read faces as a whole, taking in movements in the eyes, the mouth, and even the forehead. The practice is so ingrained that it’s the way babies learn to communicate: if you watch as they learn to speak, they often mimic the movement of an adult’s mouth. So when half those movements are covered, it can be hard for our brains to recalibrate, psychologists say. Moreover, reading faces helps us understand context within social interactions—because while someone may be saying he’s happy, his face may be expressing a very different feeling.

Play up body language.

With half the face masked, communication experts say it’s paramount to incorporate—and in turn, study—the body language of yourself and others. Someone who is sitting up straight or even slouching may not be as interested in the topic at hand as someone who is leaning forward and using her hands while she speaks. Lennox advised her client to smile bigger, because even though the smile itself would be covered, the interviewers would be able to see her client’s eyes crinkle up to show enthusiasm.

Articulate with pitch perfection.

Another factor to consider with masks is that they make conversations more muffled. So it’s important to pay close attention to how you articulate your words. What’s more, be mindful that one of the best ways to get expression across is through your tone. In a study detailed in the famous 1971 book Silent Messages, UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian found that if there was a mismatch between what a person was saying and the tone of his voice, listeners trusted the tone over the actual words.

Consider creativity.

Already we’ve seen a push to find innovative solutions for many of the work and lifestyle patterns that have been disrupted by the coronavirus, and masks are no different. Teachers of babies and young children, for example, have discovered they can buy masks with a clear plastic window over the mouth so that their expressions can be seen. Another option? Wear a face shield, instead of a mask, so that your whole face is available for all to see—and read. 

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