Muffled words echo through them. I try to listen, and politely ask them to repeat themselves a little louder. A few years ago, if you had told me I would have to listen to people wearing masks throughout the day, I would have laughed. I recall working with mice at an animal facility, we were instructed to wear baggy blue suits, masks, and gloves. Through our training sessions, we learnt how to read and listen to our colleagues through these suits. It grew on us, to wear another skin. We learnt to adapt to this and brought ourselves to training, despite the protective wear. This experience that seemed unique to my days in a neurobiology lab almost spilled out to the world.

I walk into a classroom after a year of lectures online and I see how different the world is. I learnt that when we laugh, commas form at the end of our eyes. Some of us have lines on our forehead that form curves like smiles. Our eyes widen, roll, narrow in, and sometimes, look away passively. I am in awe at how I suddenly draw so much from all that is visible on our faces when we wear masks.

My hands form shapes, adding gestures to make up for words that a listener might miss out on. My fingers and arms find more space in conversations. I notice more nodding, shaking and movement, to express our thoughts. I chuckle when the yes and no-nods are confused.

I notice how my professors have learnt to communicate ideas and facilitate discussions through their gestures, even if their voice seems muffled. I do miss having to look at people when speaking to them. This form of communication, however, has focussed my attention on the nonverbal. What am I saying, when I am not saying anything? So much of what is expressed is not communicated through spoken language.

I am in awe of how we are allowed to find so many ways to express how we feel. As I embark on my journey of learning sign language, I find that in acknowledging forms of communication, we build more inclusive societies, too. Perhaps, it took us these seemingly odd conversations through masks, to understand this.

“Few realize how loud their expressions really are. Be kind with what you wordlessly say.”
Richelle E. Goodrich