“Are you actually angry or are you kidding?” I asked my husband recently. His posture and facial expression read angry, but it was not the type of situation that called for this emotion. I was confused. It turned out he was joking, but I was missing the subtle cues in his voice. This has been known to happen with my children as well, and close friends, and when I thought about it, probably with other people too — maybe even perfect strangers. Was this somehow related to my hearing loss?
The Emotional Cues In Speech Can Be Harder To Hear
An interesting study published in Canadian Acoustics shows that people with hearing loss do often struggle with the emotional content in speech, even when using hearing aids. The study looked at the impact of hearing aids on the ability of adults with hearing loss to (1) understand the spoken word and (2) to ascertain the emotional state of the speaker. An excerpt from the study abstract explains the methodology and findings.
Listeners were hearing aid users who were tested with and without their aids in separate sessions. They heard sentences spoken by a young female actor portraying different vocal emotions, and were asked to report the keyword and identify the portrayed emotion. The use of hearing aids improved listeners’ word recognition performance from 43% correct (unaided) to 68% correct (aided). In contrast, hearing aids did not improve listeners’ emotion identification (38% unaided, compared to 40% aided).
In other words, people with hearing loss, even when aided, have a more difficult time picking up the emotional content of speech than people with normal hearing do.
Why Are Emotional Cues in Speech Hard to Detect?
After reading the study, I was curious why this might be the case? Was it related to the way that hearing aids compress sound to improve speech intelligibility? Or maybe it was due to the significant listening effort required by people with hearing loss? Amid the concentration required to make sense of the sounds that we hear and the clues we get from lipreading, little brain power may be left over to focus on the emotional content of the communication. Listening fatigue can also make it harder for people with hearing loss to remember the things that they hear.
Missing or misreading the emotional content in speech can make it more challenging to build and maintain strong human relationships. It can lead to stilted conversations and misunderstandings. This is a big problem that we and our communication partners must find a way to overcome.
Misinterpreting emotional cues can also be dangerous. Imagine a dating situation where one partner is having trouble understanding the interest level of the other or an argument with a stranger that turns heated too quickly because the level of anger is hard to determine.
Being More Attuned to the Emotional Content in Speech
Now that we know about this problem, what can we do to counteract this tendency? Here are my suggestions. Please share yours in the comments.
1. Use communication best practices. This lowers listening effort and the resulting hearing loss exhaustion, reserving brain power for the important task of absorbing the emotional content in speech in addition to hearing the actual words spoken.
2. Speechread. Speechreading helps you “see” certain sounds on the lips, making it easier to determine what is being said. It can also help you pick up on emotional content using facial expressions and body language.
3. Adjust your hearing aid settings. Ask your audiologist if there are any adjustments that can be made to your hearing aids to help you engage with emotional content. Hearing aids may not have the capability today, but the more we ask for this feature, the more likely it will become a reality.
4. Clarify emotional state when unclear. Just like we can repeat what we hear to check accuracy, we can do the same with emotional content. If you are unclear about someone’s intent or mood, ask them. It may seem awkward, but when asked the right way, it can be seen as a sign of caring which enhances the effectiveness of the conversation for both sides.
5. Discuss the issue with your family & friends. Making them aware of the issue may help to limit some misunderstandings that arise if you react strangely to something they are saying. Mis-hearings can sometimes be funny, but misreading emotional intent can be hurtful. Being aware that this is a possibility is the first step in minimizing its impact.
Readers, do you ever miss emotional cues in spoken language?