Stories from the Field: Is Masking a Communication Barrier for Conducting Qualitative Interviews?

The COVID-19 crisis has made face masks the new normal, presenting qualitative researchers with a new challenge when trying to build rapport with research participants. Dipanwita Ghosh and Dhanista Chakma share insights and strategies on conducting qualitative field research while wearing face masks during the pandemic crisis.

Conducting a focus group discussion (FGD) while wearing face masks.
Photo: Mohammad Mohibullah Khan

BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) adopted new research methodologies during the pandemic to generate insights and evidence for effective policies, leading to better development and governance outcomes. Research has played a key role in understanding the social impact of COVID-19 on the life and livelihood of the people. As a result, BIGD researchers conducted several qualitative studies during the pandemic. These studies require researchers to interview the locals. While conducting interviews for data collection, researchers ensured that COVID-19 safety protocols such as social distancing, hand washing, and masking were followed. However, they faced many challenges in their work due to the requirement of wearing a mask. A core component for in-depth interviews for the qualitative study is building rapport and creating an environment for comfortable interaction. Therefore, researchers build rapport with the participants before the interview and also take steps to keep them comfortable during the discussion. In qualitative interviews, limited time is a challenge in gaining the trust of the interviewers (DiCicco-Bloom & Crabtree, 2006; McGrath et al., 2018). Understandably rapport building can be more challenging if interviews were conducted wearing a mask. The purpose of this blog is to highlight the challenges faced by researchers in conducting qualitative interviews wearing masks and some strategies to facilitate effective communication with the participants.

Face masks reduce the volume and travel distance of exhaled droplets when talking, breathing, or coughing. According to WHO, masks should be used as a measure to suppress transmission of COVID 19 and save lives. To ensure safety from COVID-19, researchers needed to wear masks every time they came in contact with locals. However, face masks can sometimes create communication barriers, such as softening the speaker’s voice, concealing the vocal tone, and hiding the facial expressions that relay essential non-verbal information (Knollman-Porter & Burshnic, 2020).

During the fieldwork, we observed that wearing masks might sometimes make communication arduous, particularly for older adults and people who have trouble speaking or hearing. Another challenge was the concealment of facial expressions, which communicate emotional information, allowing participants in social interactions to appraise the emotional states of each other and adapt their behaviour accordingly (Lazzeri et al., 2018). Masking precludes the ability to read lips and see facial emotions, both of which help understand what is heard. To support the argument, a case based on the field experience is given here.

Case: Interaction between a local rickshaw puller and a researcher

One of the researchers used a rickshaw to get from one location to another during fieldwork while wearing a face mask. As the rickshaw puller could not identify whether she was a local or an outsider, he demanded a higher fare for the trip. Since the researcher knew the exact fare from her previous experience in the same field, she told the rickshaw puller that he has demanded a far higher fare. The rickshaw puller finally agreed to the researcher’s fare offer and asked her:

“Mama apni ki raag hoisen? Ashole amra toh passenger er chehara deikha vara chai, kintu mask pora thakay ekhon keu raag korse naki raji hoise bujhte pari na.”

(Translated to English: Did you get angry mama? Actually, we demand the fare by looking at the passengers’ faces, but now as everyone is wearing a mask, it has become difficult to understand whether a passenger is getting angry or accepting our offer”.)

Note: In Bangladesh, both the rickshaw puller and the passenger address each other as mama to establish an informal relationship. It is an initiation of building rapport. Mama in English means uncle.

Some research participants informed that face masks impacted their hearing, understanding, engagement, and feelings of connection with the researchers. There were cases where participants could not hear or comprehend the questions of the researchers. During in-depth qualitative interviews, the ability of the participants to speak freely with the researchers is prioritised. However, in cases when both participant and researcher were wearing masks, hiding a major portion of their faces, some participants took a long time to feel at ease, compared to times when wearing a mask was not required. When participants saw researchers were wearing masks, they were concerned about whether they should also wear masks. During fieldwork, before starting the interview one participant said:

“Apni toh mask poira achen. Mask na poira ki kotha kon jaibo? Ashole ghore toh amader mask pora hoy na.”

(Translated to English: “You are wearing a mask. Can I speak without wearing a mask? Actually, we do not wear a mask at home.”)

Wearing a mask is necessary to suppress the transmission of COVID-19. Hence, we conducted qualitative research wearing masks at all times. Considering the difficulties posed by face masks during interviews, we devised a mechanism to conduct interviews to ensure effective communication with the participants:

  1. We try to offer the participant our full attention and grasp theirs. We initiated a conversation by introducing ourselves, explaining why we were taking their time, and describing the study’s purpose and involvement. If a participant requested to see our faces, we first explained why we were wearing masks, then we dropped the mask from a distance and swiftly placed it back on.
  2. We made sure that we faced the participant directly maintaining eye contact and that nothing was blocking our view.
  3. If the interview spot was noisy, and if there are possibilities of relocation, we requested participants to relocate to a quieter place to create a more comfortable environment for the interview. If that is not possible, we requested them for a different time (esp. when the place is expected to be quieter) for the interview prioritizing their availability. If they are unavailable at any other time, we conducted the interview at that time.
  4. Sometimes we had to match the pace of the participants by talking a little louder or slower to make the participants feel at ease. If the respondents did not understand the question, we explained its context by telling them why the question was asked, provided examples to make the question easy to understand, or asked the question differently.
  5. Nonverbal cues expressed through body language can play a vital role in human communication. Therefore, using body language could also help in ensuring effective communication.
  6. When the interview is conducted with someone new, ask if there is anything the researcher can do to make communication easier for both.

Masks will remain in use for as long as we fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Identifying the issues and challenges that impede successful communication while wearing face masks is essential for better acclimating to the ensuing norm. Furthermore, developing coping strategies and skills that facilitate our communication during qualitative interviews with face masks is essential for managing the pandemic.


DiCicco-Bloom B, Crabtree BF. 2006. The qualitative research interview. Med Educ. 40:314–321.

Knollman-Porter, K., & Burshnic, V. L. (2020). Optimizing Effective Communication While Wearing a Mask During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 46(11), 7–11.

Lazzeri, N., Mazzei, D., ben Moussa, M., Magnenat-Thalmann, N., & de Rossi, D. (2018). The influence of dynamics and speech on understanding humanoid facial expressions. International Journal of Advanced Robotic Systems, 15(4), 172988141878315.

McGrath, C., Palmgren, P. J., & Liljedahl, M. (2018). Twelve tips for conducting qualitative research interviews. Medical Teacher, 41(9), 1002–1006.

Dipanwita Ghosh and Dhanista Chakma are Research Associates at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University. 

“Stories from the Field” is an ongoing series where members of the BIGD team reflect on their experiences conducting research on-ground.