Hearing Loss: When Dinner is a Disaster

Someone at the end of the table was telling a funny story. Someone else jumped in to add a related comment or share an anecdote. Interrupting was the norm. As was covering mouths with hands when speaking. The pace was rapid fire. The background noise was incessant. But nobody seemed to mind. There were smiles and laughter and joy — a celebration of the camaraderie and interconnection of the group as each person enjoyed this special connection with new friends.

Except for me. I was at the other end of the table, too far from the speaker to get in on the action and too overwhelmed with the pace of the overlapping chatter to even try. In the moment, I felt isolated and alone, but strangely, also gratitude. I realized how lucky I am that I spend most of my time in the land of well-trained conversation partners. I vowed to try to remember that feeling the next time my family and friends forgot to talk so I could hear them.

Living With Hearing Loss | A Hearing Loss Blog

How To Speak To Someone With Hearing Loss

Communicating with someone with hearing loss takes some work, especially in a group situation like a meal. Here I share my best practice tips for effective communication with someone with hearing loss. Please add your suggestions in the comments.

1. Keep your mouth visible: People with hearing loss hear with their ears AND their eyes. Seeing your lips provides critical lipreading cues that help us with speech comprehension.

2. Speak one person at a time: An orderly flow of the conversation is essential for lipreading. If more than one person is speaking, we don’t know where to look. Overlapping voices are also very challenging to disentangle.

3. Talk clearly and at a moderate pace: Rapid speech leaves too little processing time as we work to piece together the auditory and visual information we are receiving into a coherent sentence. Enunciate your words as clearly as you can. Perhaps a renewed emphasis on diction would benefit us all!

4. Face us even when talking to others: This is a hard one because naturally people turn towards their conversation partners, but if that happens to be in the opposite direction to where we are seated, we probably won’t be able to hear.

5. Optimize the seating arrangement. I try to organize the table so that the most challenging speaker for me to hear is seated across from me on the diagonal. That way when that person turns to speak to the person next to them, it is still likely to be in my general direction. This works best in a group of 4.

6. Be prepared to repeat or rephrase. It often saves time and frustration if I repeat the words that I have heard so my conversation partner only has to fill in the part that I missed.

7. Be attentive. Glance over at the person with hearing loss occasionally to see if they are following the conversation. If they are leaning forward or looking confused, they probably are having trouble. Adjusting your behavior before being asked is tremendously thoughtful.

8. Don’t shout. Louder is not always better for people with hearing loss. Clarity can often be more helpful than additional volume. Yelling also distorts your lips making lipreading harder.

My family, friends and I have invested significant time and effort to figure how we can communicate as efficiently and effectively as possible with one another. Spending time with the uninitiated helped me develop more appreciation for the conversation partners I have at home. I complain about them sometimes, but when compared to the general population, they are pretty well trained!

Readers, do you have well trained communication partners in your life?

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38 thoughts on “Hearing Loss: When Dinner is a Disaster

  1. I don’t want to ask a whole group of people to change their spontaneous ways of communicating to suit me. It doesn’t work anyway. Sometimes if it’s vital that I hear something I say “one at a time, please” and for a bit they will. You are right about the fact that shouting doesn’t usually work I have one so-called friend who likes to yell and my hearing loss gives her a wonderful excuse to yell at me. This is hurtful so I try not to see too much of her.

  2. Truly it is frustrating to talk with a person who shouts, a soft speech person, one who knew your predicaments but turn sideways or talked very fast. I really dont like these categories of pple

  3. Basically people forget when the conversation gets going in a group. I will occasionally ask my husband what someone said, but then that leaves him out of the conversation – now he missed something! So I smile a lot, or whatever based on what the rest of the group is doing. I always say, this is what I got and not much I can do about it. And I want to continue seeing the people we are out with, so I just get as much as I can out of the conversation and have my husband catch me up after we leave.

    • This is my life exactly. We enjoy people. We like to go out. I struggle sometimes, more than others, but I survive. It is a bit of a challenge to depend on that one person, usually a spouJuli Not always easy, but it is what it is and we make the choice to be with groups or stay home and be reclusive.

  4. I go to a knitting group I enjoy a lot in spite of the fact that I frequently have to ask people to repeat what they say. Several people in the group are musicians as I used to be, and one of them, a singer, after I asked him to repeat a word I missed, yelled it at me in a very aggressive manner. I was quite taken aback, but then I said in an even voice, “Paul, you of all people should know that it is diction, not volume, that makes the difference in understanding the words.” He was contrite. I understand that when I’m in a group it’s frustrating for people to have to constantly repeat what they have said, it interrupts the natural flow of conversation, so I try to limit how many times I ask and realize I am going to miss a lot of what people say. Most of my closest friends are very good about making themselves understood and including me in the conversation, but my friendship with at least one old and at one time dear friend has seriously been adversely affected by my hearing loss, he just gets too frustrated with me and that makes me sad. In group settings I realize I have an ease with my hearing loss friends and acquaintances that will forever be missing from gatherings with the rest of my friends.

  5. I’ve found that in any type of group, comedy helps remind people. I say aloud what I actually heard. Example–“Hey, do you want to share a sandwich?” “Do I want to share a HAMFISH??” Everybody laughs, but it’s with me, not at me, and after that people make an effort.

  6. I have given up trying to educate people at large gatherings. I fake it as best I can, leave as soon as possible and engineer getting together with 2 other folks at a time. If there are four of us then it breaks down into two conversations which is impossible. Three people is perfect. I hear almost everything. It’s been a revelation!!

  7. Shari, this past weekend a group of old friends met for an evening get together and a meal around a long table. We’ve all known each other for decades. Being the elder in the group, I have a designated position at the head of the table. This is really not the ideal spot for someone with serious hearing loss and I remind everyone (and they all know of my problem) I need their help in keeping up with the conversation (s), specially when everyone is laughing and talking at the same time. It’s an on-going, every day, relentless effort. I do, now and then, succumb to the illusion that I don’t need a measure of special consideration when interacting with others. Invariably I am proven wrong.

    I’ve been using an implant for just over three years and wearing hearing aids for over twenty. If I have learned anything it is this: hearing loss and its treatment is not a static condition. What works today will likely not work the same tomorrow. As you have said – self advocacy is what makes hearing loss a livable condition. So, onward we go.

  8. Great article, Shari. Visual cues are so important, especially in an age where people are constantly looking down at their phones at dinner!

  9. Thanks for this article…bet part was about shouting! All that does is distort more! And don’t forget unwrapping candy and cough drops…sounds like a forest fire!

    • Yes, candy wrappers, rattling or rustling papers or anything, I don’t know why they sounds loud to us,and one can’t shout,as I’ve wanted to so many times–‘Stop that noise!” It seems like our aids and implants pick up everything so clearly except what we want them to.

  10. Living with single sided deafness makes conversation in these situations next to impossible. I can only communicate with the person next to my good ear. In an open restaurant all ambient noise comes in my good ear and through my bi-cros aids. During and afterwards, my tinnitus is so loud that it causes additional communication problems, pain, and pressure. I even have hyperacusis which has me feeling “zaps” in my hearing related nerves. I will try to prepare myself with an earplug and situate myself in the best possible position to hear and read lips. I miss a lot of what’s said. I don’t expect everyone to compensate for me. It’s usually not remembered by them that I have this problem. And to be honest, I’d rather not constantly bring up my disability. If I’m at a work setting or someplace where complete clarity is needed I will make sure I hear what is said. I am my own advocate.

    • Bob, thank you for the word hyperacusis. In my 31 years of wearing hearing aids I have never had anyone use that term; not HA specialist or doctor even though I always complain about sounds being too loud. So many times I have been told to just “turn your hearing aids down” but that doesn’t solve the discomfort. My tinnitus is greatly increased after being in a loud environment also. It’s just impossible for hearing people to fully understand the issues we hearing impaired deal with on a daily basis. Like you I refrain from constantly reminding people of my disability, even my own family at times. How thankful I am for modern technology that can produce hearing aids, closed captions on TV, email and especially text messaging!

  11. You described that story perfectly and I’m sure many of us hard of hearing folk have all been in that situation. It does get me down sometimes but its something that you have to deal with. On reflection of what you saying it does make me appreciate my good wife and my colleagues at work who very often help me keep track of conversations.

  12. I certainly want to thank you for this great post. I found it on Google News and book marked your site. I also
    I been suffering in the shadows for quite some time, beside hearing loss I suffer from Tinnitus which really complicates the problem.
    I am one of those people from the Woodstock Generation and worked in the music industry from time to time. Not to mention heavy construction loud equipment and big trucks.
    I thought there was no hope for me, but I did get help, and got hearing aids designed to help.
    Now it’s not me it’s the people around me that need help understanding how to deal with my problem and others like me.
    It’s hard for them to remember about my problem due to the fact I always had exceptional hearing, I could hear people whispering in a different room and been accused of ease dropping, telling me I could hear a nat fart in another room. So it’s taken a lot for me to accept this coming of age deficit and others to understand it.
    I turn 70 in 2 weeks and not giving up. I get a new right hip on Halloween in 7 weeks and just wish something as easily could be done about my hearing problems.
    Thank you for bringing to light to those not afflicted with this problem and helping them understand and me keep some of my sanity.
    Michael Parker

  13. I never received a comment, different subject: Why doesen’t the manufactures of hearing aids include noise canceling in their hearing aids? It can be inexpensive and would improve the hearing for millions of hearing impaired people. Especially in an noisy environment. I wore Bose noise cancelling ear phones for years and they were wonderful. An ENT told me it was because they have a monopoly and did not care to incur the expense. That answer doesn’t register as they would pass the cost on. I can not hear or understand anything in a noisy environment. Consequently I avoid them at all costs. Noise cancelling would be a god sent for me.

    • I would love hearing aids to include a true noise-cancelling feature like the ones in the Bose noise-cancelling headphones. Hopefully with the advent of OTC hearing aids, technology advancements such as this will become more prevalent in both OTC and traditional hearing aids. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      • As I understand it, noise cancelling (active or passive) is designed to cancel (remove) background noise (noise that’s external to your hearing aid or headset. There are times when this is great. For example, you are on an airplane wearing a hearing aid or a headset watching a movie. You want to cancel the externa noise (the jet engines) while preserving the signal (that’s delivered through the hearing aid or the headset). So, I can appreciate how noise cancelling could help a lot when the ‘signal’ is streamed from a smartphone or a TV.

        What I don’t understand is when all audio (signal and noise) is over-the-air. In this case, when you cancel the noise – you also cancel the signal ☹

      • As I understand it, noise canceling reduces the background hum leaving the rest of the signal intact. Give it a try and see how it works for you. I love it!

      • I think I’m getting it. Noise cancelling helps to separate the signal from the noise (which is the first step in hearing improvement).
        Let’s say for example you are on a plane.
        You have ambient noise (the jet engines) at let’s say 80 db.
        You have a signal (your conversations) that’s louder yet (let’s say 85 db). Your noise cancelling headset takes out a lot (let’s say 80 db). That leaves the signal (your conversation) that’s running at 5 db above the engines. So, you can hear your conversations without the engine noise 😊

    • My daughter just got her first hearing aids. They are ReSound. They have a noise canceling setting,wind noise canceling setting and a conversation setting. all this is accomplished by an ap on your phone. She has just started with them but finds them good. I dread having to learn about aps, and am much deafer than she is but I want to try them. She teaches at a preschool and says they make a real difference hearing those high little voices.

  14. These tips would never work for me at my bi-annual work breakfast reunion. If we get a good turnout look for the picture here, we are seated at a long table. I always get there early enough to get a seat through my best friend so I can not say anything about it, A turnout in these numbers, you’ll have at least three groups of people that have their own conversation then when their convo is over, they’ll look over and start-up one with others; it goes on that way the entire time. Louder please, which is exactly what I’d call, I’d call it a lot of fun annoying, then, in turn, I would wanna hide under the table. The bottom line on this and others in my position is not to worry about what is said across the table. BFF and be so grateful I can visit my co-workers back in the day when I can.

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