You’re at your local pub with a group of friends, and you start chatting with someone you haven’t met before. In the background, the music is loud, and the chatter around you is interfering with her voice.
You pick up the first bits of the conversation: “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” You can’t hear clearly everything she’s saying, but the context is easy, so you keep up.
Until…she begins a monologue.
Her eyes tell you she’s passionate about what she’s saying. And she speaks with verve and animation. You so want to be in tune, but hearing-wise, you’re completely lost. You ask for a repeat here and there, and she graciously repeats, but it’s too much for you to keep up with what she’s saying.
You’re in emotional overload. Your brain has descended into a fog bank. You can no longer think clearly.
This is your turning point. This is when you, or rather your emotions, decide for you that it’s better to pretend you’re hearing everything than to continue to struggle and strain.
You nod and smile.
She takes that cue. Good. You’re connecting! You nod again, and she continues full of interest and energy. You nod.
Then—SHE ASKS YOU A QUESTION.
Now you imagine you hear brakes screeching in the distance. You see a social cliff ahead. Your emotions are cracking the whip again, and you—instead of doing something rational like asking what the question was—you answer with a timid “yes” and another nod.
Suddenly, she looks so confused. Darn. It wasn’t a yes or no question!
You play down the incident with a shrug, blaming the noise and putting the ball back in her court. You can’t hide a mild blush. You have to find a distraction.
“Ask her something,” a voice inside your head tells you. “How do you know Jamie then?” - he’s the guy who organised the night out. She says she and Jamie go a long way back, went to school together. Crisis averted! You feel like you’re back on track, for now.
When I was younger, I used to pretend to hear - a lot - and I embarrassed myself multiple times. I grew up with hearing loss, and for a long time I didn’t know how to cope with situations like these. I wish someone had told me what I’m about to tell you. It would have made my life and all those conversations in the noisy pub so much easier.
Why we pretend to hear
It depends. Some of us don’t want to interrupt the flow of the conversation or don’t want to do anything that calls attention to our hearing problem. Or maybe we just don’t know how else to deal with the situation. Especially in group conversations, we don’t want to be a burden and ask everyone to repeat everything just so that we can be filled in—multiple times.
The thing is, everyone pretends. Hearing people, too. Ha! The secret is out. Not interrupting is a cultural habit.
Think about it, when someone is passionately telling you a joke, and you hear a word that you’ve never heard before, an unfamiliar location or celebrity name, you’re not likely to interrupt. You wait for the joke to be over and maybe you fake a laugh. Probably you Google it later. All of us want to feel included, and getting the joke makes us feel like insiders.
Pretending occasionally is probably harmless, but when you have hearing loss and you pretend, you give the false impression to others that you can hear better than you do.
The thing is, everyone pretends.
So let’s say during a conference call at work, you pretend you hear when in reality you’ve been missing a lot of what was said - and stressing out big time. You’re setting yourself up for the same problem to happen over and over again. And somewhere in the back of your mind, you know this, so a hopeless feeling squirms in.
Bad habit triggers
The key to breaking a bad habit is to identify when it’s triggered. Once we’ve identified the trigger, we can change the routine that follows the trigger - in this case, pretending we hear.
For me, the trigger happens every time I struggle to hear something while everyone else in the room seems to have no problem at all following the conversation.
When I ask, “Pardon me?” once and I still can’t hear, I don’t know what to do next. So, I segue into the pretending-to-hear routine.
I know I’m not alone here.
Pretending gets us out of an uneasy situation temporarily, so we keep doing it even if deep down we know it’s not a constructive thing to do.
Breaking the habit
Rather than breaking a bad habit, we can simply convert it into a good one. We can change the pretending routine into something constructive.
Every time I struggle to hear (trigger), instead of asking for a simple repeat, which may or may not work, I use a script—which I’ve prepared ahead of time.
For example, I’m sitting at the back of a large meeting room at work and listening to a presentation by Jean. Her voice is a bit soft to grasp through the noisy office. If only I could be closer to her…
As soon as I miss what she’s saying, while everyone else hears it (trigger), instead of asking for a repeat, which would at best only fix the situation temporarily, I say, “I’m sorry to interrupt Jean, but I can’t hear well from down here, and I don’t want to miss this. Do you mind, Rob (who’s sitting closer), if we swap seats? I’m sure I’ll hear better if I’m sitting closer.”
Jean and Rob are human beings. They don’t mind at all. Jean is glad because she wants me to hear what she’s saying, too.
Rather than breaking a bad habit, we can simply convert it into a good one.
Every time you miss something because of your hearing loss, think of it as an opportunity to improve your current situation and to educate others for future occasions. When you do this enough, people start remembering what you need and might even make suggestions to make your life easier.
To be effective, a great script should:
- bring up your hearing loss to others, especially if they’re not yet aware.
- explain what hearing challenges you’re having right now.
- suggest specific ways to improve the situation so you can hear better.
- “I have hearing loss (1), so I missed the start of what you said (2). Could you say that again from the beginning? (3)”
- “I have hearing loss (1), so I didn't quite catch that (2). Could you rephrase what you just said? (or speak more slowly or speak up) (3)”
These short examples cover all three points above.
What if it doesn’t work?
Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation. If that’s the case you can walk away - literally or figuratively—from the situation. Walking away isn’t the perfect solution, but it’s not a total loss if you manage to walk away with someone interesting.
Imagine you’re back at the pub. You’re still talking with your new friend. You wish you could carry on, but you’re at a breaking point. All your scripts have failed and you can’t get away with pretending anymore.
You can just leave, but you have one last card to play.
“I find you really interesting, and I wish I could hear everything you’re saying but due to my hearing loss I can’t hear you properly here. I can’t hear anyone too well. I’m going to have to leave and go grab a bite in a quiet restaurant next door, would you like to keep me company so we can continue the conversation?”
You don’t know if she’ll accept or if she won’t. But whatever her answer, you’ve still won because you’ve stayed true to yourself.