Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

Masks and communications


While most of my readers have been living under various forms of covid-19 restrictions for upwards of eighteen months, for us Kiwis in Aotearoa New Zealand, and especially outside of Auckland it is a novel experience. Social distancing and masks have not been everyday parts of our lives until around 2 months ago when the delta variant finally succeeded in breaching our border security measures and is proving impossible to eradicate, unlike previous variants.

Mask wearing is now mandatory for people aged 12 and over when taking public transport or visiting businesses, and recommended when away from one’s home or “social bubble”. Personally, apart from yet being unable to find a means to avoid the fogging of my glasses, I find my stress level definitely rises to the point where it can’t be ignored after about 30 minutes of continuous mask wearing, and I need to remove it, even if only for a minute, to restore myself to something resembling normalcy. I can usually achieve that by retiring to the car or finding an out of the way park seat or equivalent where the mask can be briefly removed in safety.

However, that’s not the most serious downside to mask wearing. I have always had impaired hearing. I was diagnosed as having 70%-90% hearing loss when I was around 7 or 8. Normally I can get by reasonably well, and when a word or two can’t be clearly recognised, I can usually deduce it by context. It’s only just in the past week that it has really dawned on me how reliant I am on lip reading as an essential component of my ability to understand the spoken word.

I’ve recently had several occasions where it has been necessary to converse with a shop assistant while making a purchase. In one case it was a quiet environment but I was unable to recognise even half the words spoken by the assistant. Often I was unable to understand even the gist of what he said. By the end of the transaction I suspect he was just as frustrated as I was about the slow progress of our conversation. I found the entire process embarrassing and somewhat humiliating.

Later in the week, I visited a somewhat noiser shop where I had gone to pick up some items I had bought and paid for online. Sure I could have had them delivered, but the delivery would have cost more than the products. I’m not a penny pincher, but we do have a fixed and somewhat limited budget to live on. In theory I should have been in and out of the shop inside of a minute, but it was not to be. It didn’t help that the online instructions for collecting online purchases were incorrect for the local branch. In fact it may have been less confusing if there had been no instructions at all.

After waiting at the counter under a sign reading “Collect online purchases here” and seemingly being ignored, I sought out a shop assistant and explained why I was there. To cut a long story short, it took over half an hour to collect my purchase and only then because I finally resorted to seeking yes or no replies or asking them to point or make a specific gesture order for them to communicate with me. At no time did it occur to them to initiate non-spoken communication. I found I had to give specific instructions. Even when I discovered that where I was waiting for my pickup is no longer applicable, and then asking where I should go, no one thought to point in the appropriate direction until I specifically asked them to point with their arm/hand/finger in which direction I should go.

I’m not sure what sort of privileged lives the young people working in that shop have “endured”, but it was apparent to me that they wouldn’t understand the irony of directing a wheelchair bound person to take the stairs to a different floor or instructing a blind person to read a sign painted on the wall. I would have thought that people with disabilities are encountered often enough that most non-disabled folk would have some level of understanding or empathy. Apparently not.

Come to think of it, while I don’t consider being autistic as being disabled, some of the hyposensitivities and hypersensitivities that result from being autistic can be made disabling by a lack of empathy, and sometimes by antagonism in the 99% of the population who are neurotypical. So in hindsight I really shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of understanding or empathy I have received over the past week or so due to no longer being able to augment spoken conversation by lip reading.

Perhaps I am on more common ground with neurotypicals when it come to reading facial expressions of those who are masked. I’ve heard and read many complaints about how much more likely it is to misunderstand someone or be misunderstood when masks cover so much of the face. I’ve queried a few acquaintances about this, and they tell me that it does reduce the amount of non-verbal communication they receive. The amount of perceived loss seems to vary considerably. When pressed, it’s varied from “some” to “heaps” (a lot).

Most people don’t think about how much body language and facial expressions contribute to spoken communication until it’s brought to their attention or they find it missing from others or they realise their own intentions are not always fully understood. The necessity to wear masks is bringing the significance of non-verbal forms of communication to the attention of some of the more socially aware folk.

My own (admittedly very anecdotal) investigation suggests that people rely on the eyes as much, if not more, than other facial expressions. So while a mask can reduce the amount of non-verbal information received, it doesn’t eliminate it. If anyone has tried the Mind in the eye test, they will realise how much most people can read from looking at the eyes alone. So spare a moment to consider the situation I now find myself in.

I do very poorly when reading facial expressions. I can recognise a few basic facial expressions, but if I rely solely on the eyes I’m lost. The average for adults taking the Mind in the eye test is 26 out of a possible score of 36, but varies from 17 to 35. Women average slightly higher than men. For autistics, the average is 22. I’ve tried the test many times, and the best I have ever done is 17 out of the possible score of 36. Typically I hover around the score that might result from random selection – a one in four chance of getting the correct answer for any given question – 9 out of 36. In other words, I haven’t a clue how to read eyes.

It is becoming clear to me that what emotions I can read from the face depend almost entirely on the mouth and now that they are effectively hidden behind masks, I am blind to emotions being expressed unless someone describes their emotion(s) in words. I’m really not sure how I can effectively remedy the the losses I now realise I am faced with, as I don’t see the likelihood of masks being done away with for some considerable time, if at all.

I’ve spent seventy years learning how to limit social faux pas, and more importantly, how to recognise them when they occur so that I can take remedial action. I can foresee that mask wearing will set me back decades. Perhaps it’s time I seriously thought about becoming a hermit as a full time occupation.

Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

3 thoughts on “Masks and communications

  1. Yes, there’s little patience for those of us who move slower due to disabilities. When the pandemic first started I was wearing an old pair of hearing aids and I noticed the lip reading thing too. I’ve since upgraded and my hearing is now as good as I can ever remember it. It makes me want to ask how old your hearing aids are and could you possibly do better with a more modern pair? My sister in law used to work at a call center and she was telling us a story bitching about hearing impaired people. Yes, she was complaining to me and my father in law, both hearing impaired. People don’t get it. We’re an inconvenience.

    • My hearing aids are quite modern, and I have them calibrated regularly – the last time just two month ago. I can remotely control the volume of each earpiece separately and can switch between two modes – more if I require them. Currently I have a “normal mode” which I use for everyday use and a “restaurant mode” that amplifies specific voice frequencies while reducing other frequencies. Helpful in one to one conversation in noisy situations but definitely not helpful in situations where there are many people talking, regardless of what other background noises there are.

      Unfortunately, hearing aids are only part of the problem. The other is the actual processing of what we hear. Take for example my wife. Her native tongue includes sounds that do not occur in English, while many English sounds do not occur in hers. She has lived in Aotearoa New Zealand for 50 years and had perfect hearing for the first 45 years here. However she has never been able to distinguish the difference between sounds such as “b” and “v” or between “l” and “r” or between “f” and “h” even though she has learnt how to make those sounds. Similarly, her native tongue has only five vowel sounds whereas New Zealand English has twenty vowel sounds plus diphthongs, and she finds it impossible to hear the difference between many of them. With vowel sounds she has not mastered the ability to mimic many of them, so she still has an accent typical of many people from her native country who learn to speak English as a second language..

      Probably because I learnt to recognise spoken language with a hearing disability, I never fully developed an ability to distinguish between some sounds such as “p”, “v”, “t” and “b” or “f”, “s” and “sh” or “j” and “ch”. Hearing aids don’t help. Lip reading does. On the other hand, my ability to recognise someone from their voice alone is better than anyone else I know and I can pick up subtle changes in sounds emanating from car engines or washing machines or air conditioners well before anyone else can, even without the assistance of hearing aids.

      From a practical perspective, my hearing disability hasn’t be a significant “inconvenience” until the recent requirement of wearing masks. The same is true of my eyesight. Without corrective lenses, I cannot recognise facial features at two metres, but have near perfect vision with them. On the other hand, being a chronic migraine sufferer is an inconvenience to me and makes me unreliable or untrustworthy in the eyes of others as I’m reluctant to commit to specific dates and times, because more often than not, a migraine will intervene. And when it comes to being autistic, it’s not just being an “inconvenience” to others, it’s being categorised as unacceptable and worthy of rejection or punishment for being myself.

  2. I once upon a time lived in Yesnaby, Orkney and that was like being a hermit. There’s a mixed blessing being so isolated. On one hand you can turn the music way up and walk down the field to pick mushrooms, but then on t’other hand you might see fully laden backpackers suddenly appear when your also trying to get some sun on your naked body. The planet is riddled with humans, oh and in Yesnaby it is also a huge toilet for sheep, so the various little shits are everywhere.
    My advice: Try to tip toe.

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