Have you misjudged hearing loss as bad behavior or incompetence?
It was neither the time nor the place for the front of my dress to be falling down, so I hurried into the nearest Target, arms folded like a no-clothes nightmare. I knew there existed a product that tapes fabric to your skin, thus averting such wardrobe malfunctions.
I approached a red shirt in the beauty department. Let's call her Tina. Target Tina.
"Do you have that adhesive stuff that sticks to your clothes and your skin? Like, to keep things in place?"
Tina walkie-talkied. "What's it called?" she asked me, mid-radio. "Adhesive wha-?"
Tina kindly stopped restocking cosmetics and led me to the underwear section. Walking in front of me, facing a direction as opposite my face as possible, she said something. Mumble mumble mumble. I didn't hear a single word. But Tina looked over her shoulder, awaiting my response. She was talking to me. With the ball in my court, I deployed one of my most problematic hearing habits: bluffing.
"YEAH, I THINK SO!" I bluffed, reflexively offering a response generic enough to fake my way through the conversation.
Target Tina turned and stared at me, mildly flabbergasted. "Well, THANKS for the affirmation!" she said in a tone I clocked as sarcasm.
I froze, digesting the reality that bluffing failed me this time. Before I could walk it back and confess that I actually didn't hear what she said, a new Target team member popped up and started telling me how quickly boob tape sells out, especially during prom season.
Misunderstandings abound with my hearing loss, and the boob tape fiasco is just the latest example. When I don't hear something I'm "supposed" to hear, and respond inappropriately or not at all, people may think I'm not very friendly. Like Target Tina, who, as my therapist theorized, must have been saying something self-deprecating about how she's never heard of boob tape because her boobs aren't big enough to have that problem. And there I was with a big, enthusiastic "YEAH!!!" -a reaction Tina neither expected nor appreciated.
You may be wondering why I didn't just say to Tina, "What was that? I didn't hear you!" Well? It's because I'm ALWAYS asking "What?" And it's annoying! If it's annoying for those around me constantly having to repeat themselves, imagine how annoying it is for me constantly having to ask.
So when the stakes are low and there's a reason to keep the interaction moving along (like if I don't want to take up too much of Tina's time), I save the 'what' and bluff. My brain has become efficient enough at analyzing context clues to pull me through most conversations. If I get a weird look, I take it in stride. I might answer in the affirmative (YEAH!), smile and nod, withdraw from the interaction, or just guess what they said and see where that leads.
I save the 'what' and bluff. I might answer in the affirmative, smile and nod, withdraw from the interaction, or just guess what they said!
And that makes bluffing a very bad hearing habit for, say, a journalist - my college major and occupation for five years after graduation. I made some unspeakable bluffing mistakes as a student journalist, when I likely had more than 50 percent loss of speech intelligibility and no hearing aids. But that's for another (cringey AF) post!
Spoiler: many of my undergrad classmates thought I was not very intelligent at all. But they were wrong. Being mistaken for stupid was frustrating, depressing, and desecrated my self esteem. If these hearing habits made me look incompetent, I was doomed to be exactly that.
My fear of seeming unintelligent has haunted my social life and career. For eight years, I've been working at WCCO-TV in the creative department, a job I love. I work with lots of smart, talented, interesting creatives, journalists, and business people. But when I first came onboard, I struggled to get to know anyone. I stayed in my shell, quiet as can be. Desperate to avoid an awkward misunderstanding, I concentrated carefully on listening only to the things I was supposed to hear, tuning out the rest, and doing my job.
Thankfully, I turned out to be good at my job, and built up some confidence over the years. But I can't help wondering if I've missed out on relationships along the way, or if my hearing habits have given my coworkers the wrong impression. Did they think I was hearing all the same things they heard, and forgetting immediately? Did my attempt to avoid being weird... make me weird in a bad way? Did my silence make them think i didn't like them?! If we work together and you're reading this, please know that I like you and would love to be friends!
This story of isolation is as old as time for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. I've read countless stories on hard of hearing Facebook groups where people are mistaken for stupid, spaced out, or disrespectful, because they either didn't engage in the conversation, engaged in a way others deemed wrong, spoke too loudly, or asked 'what?'
Do me a favor and imagine the last time you asked someone a question and they didn't respond. Maybe you try again, a little louder, and again, A LOT LOUDER. Maybe they still don't respond. Or they give you a puzzled look, a chuckle, or a shrug. Maybe they ask you to repeat yourself. Or they give an answer that has nothing to do with your question.
Now imagine that person is in their twenties. Not a grandparent or a sweet little old person at the library or church. Does that change how you respond? Is there a chance you would be exasperated or offended if a young person who "looks normal" didn't interact the way you expect them to?
Chances are someone you know lives with hearing loss, whether or not they've shared it with you, or even realize it themselves.
The truth is that hearing loss is everywhere. Chances are someone you know lives with hearing loss, whether or not they've shared it with you, or even realize it themselves. According to the CDC, about 24 percent of Americans ages 20-69, who say they have excellent hearing, actually have measurable hearing loss. The Hearing Loss Association of America says 1 in 5 teenagers has some degree of hearing loss. And the WHO predicts 2.5 billion people will have hearing loss three decades from now.
Hearing loss is not an old-people or other-people problem. It literally affects your conversations with people you know every single day.
So what can you do to challenge your assumptions and minimize judgment? Here are four simple practices you can bring to any conversation:
Don't roll your eyes if someone asks you to repeat yourself. See also: don't act exasperated or lose your temper. And don't decide they're stupid!
Don't say "never mind." Please. This is the worst. When you tell me "never mind," you're telling me I don't matter enough to be included in the conversation. But there are rare exceptions, in my opinion: check out my first Hearing Habits blog post!
Face the person and speak clearly. Don't mumble. Don't speak out of the corners of your mouth. Enunciate. Don't expect someone behind you to hear you.
Many people with hearing loss can't understand a whisper (I sure can't!) But realize that raising your volume does not always make you understandable. When you speak louder, only the vowels get louder. The consonants stay the same volume. Don't believe me? Tell me which these sentences makes more sense:
e i o o u oe e ay o
Th quck brwn fx jmps vr th lz dg.
The first sentence is not a System of a Down song. It's how you sound when you shout at someone. Consonants are our friends! Keep them level with your vowels, people!
Thank you for sticking with this long, yet important post! I can't stress enough that every experience with hearing loss is different. If you have a story similar to those shared here, please tell it in the Hearing Habits Forum! I'm headed there right now to share a story of a time bluffing worked out OK for me! You do NOT need to have diagnosed hearing loss to contribute to the forum!