With Hearing Loss Louder Isn’t Always Better

I attended a fundraiser for Hearing Health Foundation a few years ago where Cyndi Lauper performed. At first, I was surprised at the choice of a rocker. Wouldn’t the music be too loud? Was that the kind of message a hearing loss organization should send? My worry was misplaced. The volume level was fun, but also safe, and Cyndi put on a great show.

I’m not sure Cyndi knew what to make of the reduced volume level though. “I don’t know why they asked me to play the music so quietly,” she said to the crowd in all seriousness, “since they can’t hear well, I thought they would ask me to play it louder!”

This statement made me laugh out loud, especially since she delivered it in her characteristic accent and style, but it has stayed with me all these years, because it is such a common misnomer — that making something louder solves all hearing problems. With hearing loss, louder is not always better.

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Now, don’t get me wrong. Loudness is definitely an important component — whispers are killer — but once the loudness reaches a certain level, increasing the volume further doesn’t help and can sometimes make it worse. It is really the clarity of the sound that becomes important. And the context clues. Shouting is always counterproductive because it makes it much harder to read someone’s lips if they are distorted from yelling!

So what can help someone with hearing loss hear and understand better? Assuming the speaker is facing the listener, not covering his mouth while he talks and has done his best to reduce background noise, there are a few other things besides shouting that he can try.

1. Focus on speaking clearly. Try to not slur words together or speak very rapidly. While it may be fun, do not use different voices for comic effect. My kids like to talk in silly voices sometimes, but it makes it much harder for me to understand them.

2. Rephrase what you said. If I do not hear a certain word the second or third time, the chances I am going to catch it on the fourth or fifth try are very low. But a synonym might be easier to understand.

3. Spell a difficult word. Sometimes knowing the first letter of a word can make a big difference. Mention the first letter or write the word down. One of my friends sometimes uses finger spelling to help others understand a difficult word or name.

4. Ask the listener what would help. People with hearing loss usually know what works best for them. Just ask and they will give you some suggestions. Confronting the communication issues head-on can often make them less frustrating too.

Readers, do you agree that louder isn’t always better?

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20 thoughts on “With Hearing Loss Louder Isn’t Always Better

  1. Definitely. My hearing loss is entirely unilateral, and any loud noises, vocal or other, are painful to me. Even after all these years, I still have to tell my family to speak more quietly. It confounds them.

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  2. So true, I have partial hearing loss and what it is for me is even if you are shouting the other noises are what interfere if that makes sense. Great post.

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  3. With my Tech on and functioning, I can pick up tones a lot better than usual. So, a silly voice is fine for me because I can basically hear the “tone of your voice”. I can NOT make out most words unless I’m looking. If I wasn’t looking and I answer you, it’s because you said something simple, like “yes” or “good morning” or “how are you”. Otherwise I have to be looking.
    And I concur with whole heart, that the volume of the talking is unimportant. If I’m not looking, someone being loud just makes them, instead of unintelligible, LOUD and unintelligible. 😀

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  4. I’ve always had problems hearing. My Mom just lost her hearing within the last few years. She is shocked that hearing loss is not what she expected. I tell her “Hearing people are often clueless.”

    Even though I can’t use hearing aids, I still don’t like loud.

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  5. Yes! I have had to explain this many times in situations where I am watching TV or a movie with a group of people. I always use closed captioning so if it is not available, I explain that I will probably not be able to follow along very well. My younger sisters or any guests we might have over will often say, “Well just turn it up louder.” Then I explain that turning up the volume will not help much if at all, and it surprises people!

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  6. As one with a profound hearing loss, I overwhelmingly agree with ‘louder isn’t always better’ . . . clarity and speaking slower in a normal tone of voice helps tremendously. I also have to be facing the speaker to understand, even with my hearing aids.

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  7. Oh, yes, I certainly do agree that louder is worse! But it is one thing you hardly can explain to others and it seems a very common mistake hearing people make. Even ear specialists … I went to an ear specialist once and he too almost shouted at me which hurted my ears. Even my hearing husband thought this was curious …

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  8. This is how my audiologist convinced me my problem is not related to my ears only, six months ago. He started speaking italian (my native language) in a way I was able to pick up everything and after a few seconds changed something, but not the volume, and suddenly I was not able to understand quite anything (even if it was still italian, I’m sure). Then he raised the volume, and nothing changed.

    Often I try to explain hearing loss to my relatives and friends comparing it to a TV flat screen: when you have hearing loss, you are burning pixels. Yes, you can turn up the luminance, but it will never get back the information which was carried by defective pixels. You can just try to interpolate it from neighbor ones.

    OT: I find many of your posts really interesting. Can I translate them in italian and repost them on my blog (preserving author and links, of course)?

    Thank you and sorry for poor english 🙂

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  9. I am also hearing impaired. Unfortunately, on both sides. One ear is semi functioning(HA) and the other is deaf(otosclerosis). Lately , going to cafes and restaurants became unbearable. The noise over there is simply makes it very hard to converse in normal manner. So prefer pretty much quieter places. I wonder how others deal with it.

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