Imagine you are traveling by train with your friends. You try to tell them what you did during the weekend. It’s quite crowded in the train. Next to you there’s another group of friends who are talking to each other, behind you there is a man who is on the phone, and in front of you, there’s a parent who is playing with a toddler. You enthusiastically try to tell your friends about the museum you visited this weekend. “Sorry, what are you saying?”, asks your friend with a questioning face. “Those face masks are so annoying!”

It’s already quite a challenge to understand each other in a noisy environment, but while wearing a face mask, this is even more difficult. Why is that? 

There are two clear reasons why it is more difficult to understand each other in such a noisy listening situation. Because you are wearing a face mask, it is impossible for your interlocutor to see your mouth movements. However, your mouth movements convey a lot of information about the sounds you use. A face mask distorts and mutes the sounds that you make. Brown and colleagues showed in a recent study that the type of face mask even strongly affects how well people can understand you: medical face masks distort your words the least, whereas fabric face masks with a filter strongly distort your speech. 

Although we no longer have to wear face masks in shops and public spaces, we still need to wear them on public transport for the time to come. How can you make sure that people can still understand you in such situations? Recent research has demonstrated that it’s a good idea to support what you are saying with meaningful, iconic gestures. That way, you can convey an extra meaning that can help the listener. 

Especially in noisy situations, such as in that busy train, gestures have a strong effect on how well you will be understood. This also has a direct effect on your brain: the hand area of your motor cortex is immediately set to work. This way, the semantic information that is conveyed by your hands can make it easier to retrieve a word from the listener’s mental dictionary. So, if you want to make sure you are heard while wearing a face mask: use your hands!

This article was writte by Linda Drijvers, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics