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COVID-19 Is Changing the Way we Communicate—Here’s How

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Key Takeaways

  • Audio communication and some aspects of video eliminate crucial elements of non-verbal expression, and in person, masks prevent us from picking up on important facial cues.
  • The Deaf and hard of hearing community is especially affected due to the way masks muffle voices and inhibit lip-reading.
  • Experts agree we must be willing to adapt to this new normal, which means being more intentional with our tone and language choices.

When COVID-19 became a pandemic, the way we communicate changed seemingly overnight. To help minimize the spread, many of us have altered the majority of our interactions with other people.

This includes shifting from in-person conversations to online modes of communication such as video conferencing, phone calls, texts, or email, and wearing masks while indoors or when social distancing is not possible. 

And while this “new normal” is something that we will continue to adapt to, it comes at a highly emotional time with a certain level of confusion, frustration, and a loss of in-person connection we are used to.

Adapting to a New Normal

“Communication is hard enough when things are relatively quiet in our lives but in the midst of a crisis or stress, emotions make communication challenging and require a great deal of effort to ensure that misunderstandings are minimized," explains licensed clinical psychologist, Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., Executive Director of Innovation 360.

Now is the time to be flexible and adaptable when it comes to how we express ourselves to others. It's crucial we show compassion and kindness to each other as we maneuver through these changes. And most importantly, be willing to advocate for individual needs, whether they are for yourself or someone else. 

Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D.

“In the midst of a crisis or stress, emotions make communication challenging and require a great deal of effort to ensure that misunderstandings are minimized.

— Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D.

Limitations of Masks, Video Chats, and Social Distancing 

Cheryl Dixon, a communications strategist and an adjunct professor at Columbia University and New York University, reminds us that more than 90% of communication is nonverbal, and that it’s been proven that we tend to trust nonverbal communication cues over verbal language.

Moreover, Dixon says we use nonverbal communication to convey meaning, to modify or complement our verbal messages, and to regulate the flow of our interaction. “We are losing a lot of nonverbal cues, including proxemics (our spatial environment; how closely we position ourselves to others, the amount of space we take up) and kinesics (our body movements and gestures),” explains Dixon. 

When we communicate via video, we lose the benefit of seeing certain aspects of body language. When we wear masks, Dixon says we lose the ability to interpret critical facial expressions, plus, our own ability to convey emotion through facial expression is limited. 

How to Adapt

To make up for these limitations, Dixon says it is helpful to use language and tone to express emotions. For example, saying, “That makes me so happy to hear” with a smile (or instead of a smile if you're wearing a mask.) She also recommends that you perform a check-in for understanding by asking questions so that the communication is balanced and flows between participants.

During a video chat, Dixon says it’s common for people to be distracted by their surroundings, which is easily perceived as boredom or disinterest. “Being mindful to be present and focused, avoid multitasking, and minimizing possible distractions will increase engagement and strengthen interaction,” she says. 

Challenges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community 

Those who are deaf or hard of hearing, in particular, are facing significant struggles with communication during COVID-19. Laurene E. Simms, Ph.D., Interim Chief Bilingual Officer at Gallaudet University, says that for the millions of Americans who have some degree of hearing loss, the fundamental issue is access to their personal relationships as well as accurate and timely information about COVID-19 and access to the public health system.

“COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of Deaf-signing Americans, who number more than an estimated 2 million-plus. Within the Deaf American population, there are Deaf people of color who are even more vulnerable during this time as they too often are not provided access to accurate information and public health care due to blatant discrimination, socioeconomic status, and lack of resources such as educational opportunities and transportation,” Simms explains.

Laurene E. Simms, Ph.D.

“Within the Deaf American population, there are deaf people of color who are even more vulnerable during this time as they too often are not provided access to accurate information and public health care due to blatant discrimination, socioeconomic status, and lack of resources such as educational opportunities and transportation.

— Laurene E. Simms, Ph.D.

Simms also points out that being isolated at home, especially when the other members of the household do not sign, is adding to the stress. This is especially true for the majority of children who are deaf or hard of hearing, Simms says, since more than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. 

The Problem of Limited Information

Not having access to accurate and timely information is another significant issue within the Deaf community.

Although many briefings about COVID-19 have closed captioning, Simms says this form of communication has many inherent limitations. “In many cases, you have to have a high reading level to read them and English is not the first language for many deaf people, plus, it is typically acquired through print rather than speech,” she says. 

Moreover, captions often omit information, are often inaccurate and hard to read, and the emotional tone of the speaker is lost in written captions. Consequently, Simms says Deaf-signing Americans are often left out of important information such as public health mandates related to social distancing, stay at home, hygiene, and mask-wearing.

Face Masks Hide Facial Cues

When it comes to the loss of facial cues due to masks, Simms says for Deaf Americans, facial cues expressions play a very important part in the meaning of a sign, and also signal grammatical elements. “For hearing-speaking persons, facial expressions are nonverbal cues that support the spoken language, but ASL, in comparison, relies on facial cues and expressions along with eye gaze, head tilts, cheek puffs, and mouthing. As such, wearing a face mask disrupts the grammar of ASL,” she explains. 

To manage this situation, Simms says Deaf signing people are resorting to writing notes, texting, and gestures. But this puts many Deaf Americans at risk, she says, because some may have less reading proficiency and less exposure to medical terminology. “As such, they may all not be able to write about medical issues with a high degree of precision,” adds Simms.

When it comes to managing telehealth during COVID-19, the Deaf and hard of hearing community is relying on guidelines published by the National Association of the Deaf. There is also a section for healthcare providers on telehealth for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Tips for Adjusting and Coping With These Changes

First of all, says Gilliland, we need to stop comparing how we communicate now to how we used to communicate; it’s not going to help us move forward because this is not an event that only requires us to make a few tweaks in our lives. “This is a new way of living, and the more creative and open we can be about doing new things, the better we’re going to do,” he explains. 

We also need to slow down when we communicate. “Our normal lines of communication are down, it’s a highly emotional time, and trying to do too much too fast is going to end poorly,” Gilliland says. “We can’t afford to be in a hurry when it comes to communicating right now, so allow some extra time for a longer conversation about an issue,” he says.

Gilliland also recommends having a follow-up conversation if you think the other person may have misunderstood you, just to clarify what you were trying to say. It’s OK to over-communicate right now even if you tend to shy away from that sort of thing.

Another strategy, says Emily Hu, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with Thrive Psychology Group in Southern California, is to step up the communication in general. “There are gaps going on right now that we ordinarily wouldn’t have, so you’ll need to work extra hard to make sure your point is getting across correctly, whether that’s asking the other person to repeat back what you said, communicating your emotions in addition to your words, or otherwise making sure they’re getting the whole message,” she explains.  

Emily Hu, P.h.D.

“There are gaps going on right now that we ordinarily wouldn’t have, so you’ll need to work extra hard to make sure your point is getting across correctly.

— Emily Hu, P.h.D.

When interacting with the same people, Hu recommends figuring out what method of communication works best with each individual person. “Some people will do better with videoconferencing than others, while some will prefer texts. Try out different methods and find the match that works not just for the other people in your social network but for you yourself, and then stick with it the best you can,” she says.

Whenever possible, try to do a video conference or at least phone calls instead of text or email, as this might save at least some of that organic feeling of the conversation flowing naturally.

But if you are using email or text, make sure to ask for clarification if you’re concerned that you’re not reading the tone correctly or you’re having trouble figuring out what the other person is feeling. Hu says, don’t be afraid to ask them directly since this will save a lot of heartaches later.

And most importantly, Hu says, be compassionate. “You’re going to misread other people sometimes or be misread yourself. Rather than jumping immediately to guilt or anger, remember that we’re all struggling to learn a whole new way of communicating during this pandemic. Give yourself room to make mistakes.”

What This Means for You

Life has changed drastically in the last several months, and how we communicate must change, too. Learning new ways to interact has proven to be a challenge, but one we can get through.

Whether it’s asking for clarification when talking with a mask on or requesting video conferencing for work meetings, advocating for what works best for you while also practicing kindness and grace with other people will help make this process go a lot smoother for everyone. 

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