Dining Out Toolkit for People with Hearing Loss

Dining out can be a loud and stressful experience. Today’s popular restaurant décor includes hard woods, mirrors and metal, all surfaces that reflect noise rather than absorb it. A lack of carpeting and other sound absorbing surfaces creates a cacophony of sound reverberating around the space. Background music combined with the clacking of cutlery on plates and other patrons’ conversations add to the overwhelming din. Hearing the waiter recite the specials, let alone enjoying quiet conversation with your dinner companions becomes almost impossible. This is true for everyone. Imagine the challenge if you have hearing loss.

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Because of the noise, many people with hearing loss avoid restaurants, but with upfront planning, self-advocacy, and a willingness to experiment with new technologies, positive experiences are possible.

Follow these tips to make your next dinner out a success.

1. Do your research. Quiet restaurants may be few and far between, but they do exist. Read restaurant reviews online; many now feature loudness ratings. Ask friends for recommendations or consult free crowdsourcing apps like Soundprint which group restaurants in your area by ease of conversation.

2. Provide information early. When you make your reservation, mention that you wear hearing aids and request a quiet table. When the restaurant calls to confirm, reiterate your request. This increases the likelihood that they can meet your needs versus walking in cold. When you arrive at the restaurant, remind the hostess once again. If the first table you are given does not suffice, request to be moved. Polite persistence can be very effective.

3. Request a table in the corner. A corner table or other location beside a wall is often quieter because there is a barrier between you and the rest of the restaurant noise. Sitting with your back to the wall will help limit distracting noise from behind you. For people with certain types of hearing aids, a corner table still works well, but sitting facing the wall is better. Experiment and see which works for you.

4. Ask for a round table. A round table makes group conversation easier. People are more likely to face forward as they speak projecting their voice towards the center of the table and keeping their faces visible for speech reading.

5. Search for sound absorbing décor. Look for old school restaurant design features like carpet, drapes, cushioned seats, cloth tablecloths and acoustic tiles. Many restaurants today prefer hard surfaces like wood and glass. Preview the décor online or stop in to see it for yourself before making a reservation.

6. Advocate for what you need. Ask the manager to turn down the music or move you to a quieter table. Request the specials in writing rather than verbally from the waiter. Hearing loss is an invisible condition so others won’t know that you need help unless you ask for it. If a restaurant is not open to meeting your needs, vote with your dollars and do not return.

7. Avoid busy times. Restaurants are quieter at off hours and the management may be more amenable to requests to turn down the music. Eat early or late, or try dining outside if the weather permits. Outdoor spaces often have fewer hard surfaces to reflect sound and more organic material to absorb it.

8. Limit group size. It is fun to eat out in large groups, but this makes conversation more difficult in a noisy environment. Limit groups to 4 or 6 people if possible. If a larger group is required, focus on conversing with the people next to you and across from you. Discussions over long distances are unlikely to work well.

9. Manage the seating arrangement. Position yourself towards the center of a large group and with the people that are more difficult for you to hear directly across from you so that you can read their lips. In a group of four, I like to have the person hardest for me to hear diagonally across from me. That way if they turn to speak to the person next to them, their voice is still heading in my general direction. Don’t be shy about asking for a different seat if needed.

10. Experiment with technology fixes. Ask your audiologist to create a restaurant program for your hearing aids that will block out background sounds and focus in on voices or try an assistive listening device. Many such devices exist, and with the advent of OTC hearing aids, many more are likely to be on the market soon. Speech-to-text apps work well and can be used discreetly right on your phone. Remote microphones where your dining companions wear microphones that connect directly to your hearing aids also work well if everyone participates.

Don’t let your hearing loss keep you from enjoying the latest new restaurant or a special night out with friends or family. Preparation, creativity, and self-advocacy are the keys to success.

Readers, what strategies do you use when dining out with hearing loss?

A version of this article was originally published in The Hearing Journal. Reproduced with their permission.   

18 thoughts on “Dining Out Toolkit for People with Hearing Loss

  1. I employ a number of the strategies you mention here, particularly sitting with my back to a wall when possible. That usually works well for me.

    One of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco is very much old school, with carpet, cloth tablecloths and napkins, and high-backed wooden booths to block the sound behind you. It is a popular place, small, and most of the time is crowded, but they figured out from the start (it opened in 1974) how to give people a quality dining experience. I rarely have trouble hearing my dinner companions there. And the food is great!

    Conversely, another popular and excellent restaurant is so loud that I will not return. Not only did my normal hearing companions have trouble hearing our server, but she could not hear us. I warned everyone that they should not expect me to converse with them, tucked into my food, and got out of there as soon as possible.

    I read somewhere that a lot of these “trendy” restaurants make the sound unbearable for a reason: to turn over tables faster.

  2. Booths. Plan ahead. Go early on a weekend if the restaurant is popular and does not take reservations. Advocate for yourself. And yes, noisy restaurants will not receive my business.

    • Yes, I have heard from a grandson in the restaurant business that this is true. I think they are shooting themselves in the foot as dining out is supposed to be a pleasant social event and if the diner hear each other it is not, and it is unlikely that the restaurant wilt get repeat business. Unfortunately, restaurants tend to cater to young people who apparently Like the noise. The wort are places with TV s going. I don’t understand why they do thistles it is a sports bar. I don’t dine out to watch Tv.

  3. We tend to dine out only in restaurants with soft décor and furnishings as these absorb the ambient background noise. Modern “minimalistic” restaurants with lots of hard surfaces are too difficult for me to hear in despite the programs on my HAs..

    In some restaurants we tend to use sign language and that can irk the staff, but then my husband explains that I’m deaf and cannot hear against the levels of background noise.

    Trip Advisor is a good review site and I’d recommend anyone to use that to report on good, bad and indifferent experiences in different restaurants. If enough of us “deafies” use Trip Advisor and post reviews then maybe the message will get through to those who need to be making more of an effort.

  4. I try to position myself against a wall if possible and I avoid restaurants that are to noisy. Recently went to a work dinner, we were seated at two long tables, when I saw the seating arrangement, I told everyone that I would only be able to converse with those right next to me. It was so noisy, I left early.

  5. Yes, restaurants can be a real issue. I am fortunate and live in Florida and usually request an outside table weather permitting. When dining inside I always request a quiet table in back or against a wall. I also use Open Table or some other reservation app and they have a special request section that I use for these requests.

  6. When I go to a new restaurant, I will discover a table which is particularly good, acoustic-wise (identified by either the restaurant staff or me). Before leaving, I grab the restaurant’s business card, and ask what that table’s number is — Every table has a designated number. Then, when I make my next reservation, I request that specific table. It’s worked every time!

  7. When going out to eat, make your choices and look at the sides or alternate choices. for example, I want a New York Strip rare, baked potato with sour cream, house salad with Italian dressing. There are no questions left to ask which is the purpose. It works!

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