My Hearing Loss Frown: I’m Not Angry, I’m Just Concentrating

Do people sometimes think you are angry when you are not? Or that your facial expression during conversation implies a negative affect? This happens to me at times, especially in difficult listening situations like meetings with many people or at gatherings with a lot of background noise.

I call it my hearing loss frown. I am not angry or upset, but I am concentrating so hard to hear that the work shows on my face. This can be a problem for people with hearing loss because this focus is often misinterpreted as anger, frustration or annoyance, which can lead to difficulties in personal relationships and in the workplace.

portrait of an angry woman

What is listening effort for people with hearing loss?

When you have hearing loss, understanding speech does not come naturally — it requires effort. The best way I know to explain it is as a game board from Wheel of Fortune. Some of the letters are filled in, others are blank. The listener is trying to make sense of the assorted and incomplete sounds they are hearing and turn them into a word or phrase that makes sense in the context of the conversation. This is not easy, especially since the discussion does not pause while you are doing this extra processing. This extra mental activity is also known as listening effort, and it can lead to hearing loss exhaustion.

Early in my career, I would get the same feedback each year in my annual review at work, “Please try to have a more pleasant facial expression during meetings so you don’t look angry or disapproving of what people are saying.” At the time, I was in denial about my hearing loss and was only wearing my hearing aids when absolutely necessary. The listening effort was likely tremendous — and it was glaringly obvious to everyone, except me. All I knew was that at the end of each day, I was drained.

Years later, once I had accepted my hearing loss and learned more about it, I finally understood the problem and began experimenting with fixes to reduce my listening effort, and therefore my mental fatigue.

How can people with hearing loss reduce listening effort?

Listening effort for people with hearing loss will always be a factor, but there are ways that we can help lessen its impact. Here are my suggestions. Please add yours in the comments.

1. Use communication best practices.

Small changes in behavior can make a big difference in the ease of conversation. Teach your conversation partners to get your attention before speaking. Ask them to face you when talking and to keep their mouths visible to aid with lipreading. Speaking at a moderate and consistent pace is also helpful. As a person with hearing loss, we must be prepared to remind our conversation partners about these best practices repeatedly.

2. Select a conducive environment.

When possible, volunteer to choose the location for a meeting or social gathering so you can select a quiet and well lit space. If others have chosen the venue, arrive early to scout out the situation and request a quieter seat if possible. Don’t be shy about asking for the assistance that you need to create a better environment. Your conversation partners will also be grateful.

3. Supplement hearing devices with additional communication tools.

Our hearing aids and cochlear implants are miracles of technology that help us hear, but in many situations additional assistance is required. Try out the latest speech-to-text app on your phone or use a remote microphone such as a Roger pen. My favorite speech-to-text apps include Live Transcribe (Android only) and Otter.

4. Take breaks as needed.

Schedule breaks in a long day of meetings to maintain energy and concentration. At a social gathering, excuse yourself for a quiet trip to the restroom or to relax for a few minutes in another room. Pace yourself and you will feel better at the end of the event.

5. Arrive well rested.

Take care of yourself physically. Get enough sleep, eat healthy food and stay hydrated. Maintaining a regular exercise routine will boost your energy and allow you to handle the stress of advocating for yourself when needed.

6. Bring a positive attitude.

Some conversations will be exhausting no matter your preparation and care. This is ok. Allow yourself the luxury of imperfection. When you stay relaxed and upbeat it helps your conversation partners to do the same. With practice, you might even be able to turn your hearing loss frown into a smile.

Readers, do you have a hearing loss frown?

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24 thoughts on “My Hearing Loss Frown: I’m Not Angry, I’m Just Concentrating

  1. “As a person with hearing loss, we must be prepared to remind our conversation partners about these best practices repeatedly.” This is hard to do. Each morning when i wake im clueless to my hearing loss…until the first time I have to remind someone I’m having a little trouble hearing today. I can certainly understand why it’s preferable to avoid conversations and relationships. Maybe I’m just a little worn out now. Thank Shari for your help. You are making a difference in our lives!

  2. In these days of Covid19 hearing has become even more difficult . When two feet was, at times difficult, 6 feet is almost impossible. You ask for something and to try say everything so there are no questions. Invariably they always find one. Then you go to the cashier and she is behind a large plastic screen and is asking you to do something. Excuse me? All these are necessary but at times frustrating. Anyhow, better days are coming in the meantime we need to perceive with a smile and say thank you to everyone out there trying to help. I am sure they are frustrated as well.

  3. You are so right. When my children were growing up they were sometimes upset because they thought I was angry when I was just trying to make sense of things.

  4. I have always been told I look very serious when not smiling. I’ve been hard of hearing since a child. Expert lip reader and bought myself hearing aids at 35 .
    That was decades ago. Now Hearing Aids are not much help, so, I got a Cochlear implant two months ago. First thing I noticed ( even though I’m just getting used to it) was less hearing aid exhaustion.
    I’m very happy about that.

  5. I can relate very well. Often when I’m listening to others, people say “Are you mad?” or “Why you look so angry?” After reading this post, I can now say I’m not mad or angry, I’m just concentrating hard. Another great post. I will save this one. Thanks.

  6. Your experience in explaining yourself is great. Others are different. Even with hearing aids/cochlear implants not all can have the same experience. I have had the implants for near 34 years and still could reach the level that you and others do but I am contented with them and would feel lost without them. A lot of people in the deaf community do not like them. They seem happy in their community was is ok too. Everyone is different. We can help each other the best we can. Should the emphasis be on getting all the words first instead of how something sounds? Like in a meeting. There are times to learn how words are pronounce but there are times to just get the words and later ask. Not during a meeting. The reason I said that was because many speakers and/or the person next to you tell you never mind because they don’t want to waste their time. There is a time. If you let the person know ahead of time about your needs and need someone to fill you in on what is missing then someone out of respect should tell you. I get that people get to focused on the meeting and can’t focus on 2 things at a time. Having captions would fill the void. Having empathy will go a long way. Keep up the good work.

  7. There is no question that my CI and HA give me access to a level of social experience that would not be available to me otherwise. That being said, nothing tires me more than trying to keep up in a conversation with more than one other person. Of course I hear more but the work of understanding is not diminished. I am often lulled into thinking I can successfully navigate a group discussion only to be reminded once again that hearing does not equal understanding. This post, Shari, really brought my condition home to me again. It’s not called hearing loss for nothing. The sound I hear is a facsimile of true sound. It’s been almost four years since I was implanted and I find that I must work just as hard now as ever to understand. That effort does result in frowns and blank looks when everyone else seems animated because they “get” it and I don’t.

    These days of “sheltering in place” pretty much removes the issue but there is hope that the day will come when gathering and visiting and doing commerce will once more challenge us all. Meanwhile I practice putting on an ear loop surgical mask when I have to go out to the grocery store. Perhaps someone has a better idea.

  8. In Natural Horsemanship terms, when a horse is concentrating on a task asked of him, he will often display pinned back ears, and we are taught how to recognize anger from his “thinking face”….maybe our group of hearing impaired and deaf can use this term to apply to us as well…
    Our “thinking face”
    Deb Harper
    Abbotsford BC

  9. I have had this same discussion in the past with others. No exaggeration I would bet money this issue is one reason I don’t get asked out for a date! What guy will approach a woman who’s face is super serious all the time while she is trying to keep up with the conversation(s) or activities surrounding her? They don’t! I have found that I have to really go out of my way in a new job or environment to introduce myself and show people I am friendly and approachable to offset that “look” I may portray while I’m on my 5-second delay.

  10. Shari, this is something I’ve noticed in interview videos that I am in. As a person asks me a question, my brows furrow and my eyes squint. I am not aware of appearing angry-faced because of being too busy concentrating on lip-reading. Then, when I become mindful of having a pleasant face when lip-reading someone, I become more focused on myself and less on trying to understand the speaker. So I may bluff or ask “What did you say?”, all the while with a smile on my face… So I say go with the “angry face” because that means you are truly listening.

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