I’ve done a couple of safe-cations in our current pandemic climate, and hope to do a few more over the next year or so (yes, I’m prepared to safe-cation for as long as it takes). So inevitably, I am going to be out there, wearing my mask and encountering other people wearing their masks. And occasionally, I am going to have to communicate with a handful of such people, like servers and my traveling companion.
Aye, there’s the rub. Because a significant tool in my toolbox for successful wandering is communication, and due to my hearing loss, said communication is substantially dependent upon the lower three-quarters of the face, and said three-quarters of faces will be obscured from view.
Cue momentary freak-out. After years of refining my lip-reading skills, no more lips, no more facial expressions to give context. And don’t get me started on the sound quality — even speech at a decent volume is now muffled by three layers of cloth plus filter, the equivalent of talking with your hand over your mouth.
Alack, alack, what’s a moderately deaf girl to do?
Never fear, random happenstance is here. I had to pay a visit to my hearing center a few days ago to fix one of my devices, and lo and behold — piles and piles of brochures on how to figure out what the hell y’all are saying without ever having to lower anyone’s mask. Nope, not even a little bit.
So if you are having trouble hearing masked people — or you both want to be a responsible mask-wearer AND have a conversation with the staff at the grocery store or with a fellow responsible mask-wearing neighbor — or better yet, if there is any chance that the person on the other side of your daily masked conversations is hard of hearing — I hope you find this helpful.
Here we go – my favorite pieces of advice from the many pieces of advice promoted by people who make a living from helping people like me:
Get My Attention
I liken this to trying to start a conversation with a neighbor who is out listening to music while tending to their lawn or supervising their boisterous young kids. Most of us instinctually understand that shouting their name over and over again amidst the cacophony of sounds (or music in their earbuds) is a bit rude, not to mention a fool’s errand.
So what do we do instead?
When that fails, we wave a little bigger.
Eventually we might even raise our arms rock-concert style.
We may even throw in a high-pitched “yoo-hoo!” here and there, but something inside our brains gets that this audible is purely for our own satisfaction — but not what’s going to get our neighbor to notice us.
That’s pretty much my experience of living with hearing loss: you’re constantly walking through the world with noise-cancelling headphones on, and the murmur of noise around you is like so many sugar-charged toddler screams that you’ve learned to ignore. It’s nothing personal – it’s simply a response to the world of sound not being very reliable.
So the advice here, in a nutshell, is to get as close to the other person’s line of sight as possible and do something visual. This will trigger that oh-so-human instinct to comprehend this bizarre new element in their vision plane, so that you can get that oh-so-coveted acknowledgment.
Maintain Eye Contact
The next piece of advice — while pretty straightforward — is often neglected in conversations that I’ve had. Many people in my life have gotten adept at getting my attention in the first place, but at some point during our conversation, they do something that seems truly bizarre to me: they turn and walk away. In mid-sentence. And then the clincher: they continue talking.
In the words of the great Samurai X: Oro?!?
I have never understood this habit, even before I was aware that I was losing my ability to hear clearly. Eye contact has always been a key factor of communication for me. It’s how you show you are listening without having to say a word. It’s how you can make the person on the receiving end feel like they are the most important person in the universe (and I absolutely adore that feeling, on both ends of the exchange). And it’s how you can make sure that you’re taking in as much as possible about what the other person is trying to convey to you, because body language will often tell you much more than the actual words being said.
If I were to hazard a guess, I suspect half of the time that people do this, they don’t realize they are doing it. In my experience confronting friends about this, they have seemed surprised that it occurred. (Some have even claimed that they thought the conversation was over — which belies that perhaps they weren’t paying as much attention to the conversation as they thought they were.)
So to sum up: when you’re in a conversation, really try to be in the conversation. Make eye contact, and keep it until everyone is done talking, for reals. And if you really need to walk away, pick an exit phrase like, “be right back” or “see you later” or my personal go-to, “gotta pee”. You know, like civilized folk.
Speak Clearly and Confidently
I’m going to sound like a broken record from my previous post on hearing loss, but I can’t state this too strongly or too often:
DON’T SHOUT AT PEOPLE!! THEY DON’T LIKE IT! AND IT MAKES YOU LOOK LIKE AN ASS!! SO TEAR THAT DESIRE OUT OF YOUR BRAIN, STOMP ON IT REPEATEDLY, AND FEED IT TO THE RACCOONS!! SHOUTING SUCKS!!!
See what I did there?
Now stop it.
Instead, pretend you’re taking an oral exam on speaking proper English, and you’re going to get handed 20 bucks for each consonant you clearly enunciate. Move your lips (which we sometimes forget to do, I think because they are covered by the mask so we don’t think it will make a difference – spoiler, it really, really does). That’s it.
What about volume, you ask? Doesn’t hearing loss make it so you need the sounds to go to 11? Um, yes, that’s sometimes the case, like in a crowded bar (need I mention, that scenario is soooo not relevant for this mask-in-the-time-of-corona post?) but not as much as you think. In general, it is much better to raise the volume just a smidge — no need to overdo it. In fact, I recommend not thinking about volume at all, but rather think about your confidence. You will naturally speak in a manner that is easier to hear when you are speaking declaratively.
In summary: Speak your mind with authority about what you’re trying to convey, and a natural, comfortable volume range will result — which will be much more fun for both of us, I promise.
Confirm That I Understand
Okay, here’s the moment where I admit that sometimes due to bad acoustics plus distractions plus multiple people trying to talk to me plus daydreaming plus device technology not quite keeping up with the demands of communication … even when you do all of the above, I just don’t track you. And sometimes I fall into that embarrassing habit that I had before “coming out” of smiling and nodding, and continuing to look at you politely (and perhaps vacantly). And it’s clear as day that I’m not getting it.
It happens, and it’s not your fault. I appreciate that it feels crappy because you feel stifled in your efforts to share something that is really, really important to you. It’s easy to feel like you’re not that important to me, because I’m giving you signals that I stepped off the comprehension train a few stops ago and am happier browsing in my mental gift shop than connecting with you.
For all the times that has happened and will happen, I am genuinely sorry. I’m trying to get better at speaking up when I feel challenged, but it’s a work in progress.
Meanwhile, here’s a trick for snapping me back to reality and reminding me to be straight-up about my hearing challenges: ask me a question. Just a simple, confirming, conversational question, like you do.
Let’s say you’re trying to tell me about a movie you saw, maybe take a moment to ask if I’ve heard of the movie, or if I remember the name of an actor in it.
It’s also completely appropriate to say, “It looks like you might be having trouble hearing me, do you want me to say that again?” (I actually fricking love it when people say that – it’s immensely respectful, kind, and lets me off the hook of having to interrupt and awkwardly explain that I’m struggling.)
I also think we do this more commonly in conversations than we realize. It comes out without our thinking about it, when we feel comfortable with the person we’re talking to. Great chats are a two-way street, with everyone contributing and sharing ideas.
My soundbite for this one? Down with the monologue, up with the dialogue! Or something.
If I Don’t Understand, Write It Down
Final suggestion here, which is a handy last resort when all else fails. This is for the very worst of cases.
Despite repeating something over and over again, and trying to confirm understanding, you continue to feel like you’re coming up short. It’s that moment when you think to yourself: it’s time to bite the bullet, lower your mask, and let me read your lips.
Nope, nope, nope.
Lovely thought, and I appreciate you, but hell to the no.
Do you have a phone with a notes app, or even just the ability to start a dummy text message? Or the back of a receipt and a pen? Great. Write down what you need me to understand, show it to me so I can read it, and I’ll give you the response you’re looking for.
Comprehension: 1, Coronavirus: 0.
At the risk of sounding like an infomerical: it really is that simple.
Caveats and Such
As a final note, I wanted to clarify that these approaches are promoted by my local hearing aid clinic, but are very specific to folks who have moderate hearing loss and the ability to process sound to a reasonable degree.
In no way does this adequately address the needs of the d/Deaf community, or folks who choose to not wear devices, or individuals who struggle to read due to other physical challenges.
In no way is this a catch-all-to-solve-all-problems-with-masked-communication.
That’s it, that’s all I got. Take what you like, toss the rest. And please wear a mask in public until we have administered an effective vaccine to your part of the land. Thank you.