Ida News

Personal Perspective: I Would Like to Hear...

Personal Perspective: I Would Like to Hear...

Thu Mar 24, 2016 11:01 AMBy Amanda Farah Cox
Can you take yourself seriously if you hear badly? Article by Grete Boisen (hearing impaired since childhood) Translated by Bente Sørensen The headline is from Mogens Landsvig´s old radio music program, where people called in their song requests. Immediately you could think that the headline also covers a person with hearing loss’s desire about their hearing: to be able to hear better! But is it really so? We have plenty of documentation in this country and abroad showing the opposite. People seem to accept living with hearing problems for years without doing anything about them. In Denmark alone, an estimated half million people have not had their hearing tested, but they would probably benefit from hearing aids if they had them. But when people accept not being able to hear in different situations, perhaps it is because they don’t think they are missing anything. There are two possibilities: either you miss being aware of what is going around you and have taken steps to hear everything better, or you don’t care about what you are missing do pretty well without knowing it. Could there really be half a million Danes today who do not care about hearing what’s going on around them? In our information- and communication-based society? It does not sound probable, and it is also not the impression you get when reading articles and reports about hearing loss, or when talking to a person with hearing loss. You meet those who grieve their reduced hearing, tend to isolate themselves, retire  early from the labor market, etc. It seems, really, that many people are not okay with living with hearing loss, yet they do not do anything about it. The complicated hearing process Why is it that so many people come to a standstill? To answer this, I think it is useful to look at how we use our sense of hearing when we don’t have a hearing loss. The ears are our windows to the world. When someone says “hi,” for example, the utterance is carried through the air as small sound waves. Some of these sound waves reach the ear canal and then the eardrum; by the time they reach the middle ear bones they are no longer transported through the air, but through solid material. From there the sound moves through fluid in the inner ear to thousands of sensory cells that transform it to electric signals that are sent up the central nerve system which continues the processing work. The result of this complicated process is the experience: I hear someone saying “hi.” It is not difficult to understand why it works this way, but it is difficult to remember! Our ears are not small microphones that absorb unprocessed sound, as one experiences it. Each time you understand what someone says, you have recreated what was said. What you hear is your best guess and when you respond “hi” and the person concerned does not protest, you conclude that you heard correctly. Continued communication is the test of if what you heard is actually what was said. A precondition for the qualified guess is naturally that you know the language. A baby or a person that does not speak a particular language will experience something else when they hear someone saying “hi.” Expectations, knowledge and experiences are important preconditions in understanding spoken language, because they create and promote an understanding of what is said.   Sometimes miscalculations occur, however. The sounds do not totally fit the expectation and then you have to listen more carefully until you get back on the right track. The process can also go backwards, something that particularly people with hearing losses and those who do not fully grasp a language may have experienced: You are listening to a flow of words without being able to get the exact meaning of them until some keyword suddenly pops up to help you recreate what you did not understand just a moment before. Even though we might not realize it, we do have expectations of what will be said in daily life. It is likely that the sound of a voice is enough to create expectations about what will be said. For instance, you expect expletives from grown men with deep voices, and when the expressions come, they are easy to understand. But if kindergarten-aged child uses the same expressions, it may take a little longer to process them, because you don’t think along the same lines when you hear a child´s voice. This pre-understanding of a language you are an expert in is a huge help when communicating, but only as long as you are also curious. If you settle for what you expect the other person to say, without checking, in reality you have withdrawn from hearing what is said. This applies to people with and without hearing losses. People with hearing losses are not the only ones that have difficulty hearing. You manage conversations with your ears Hearing is an active process. You can listen with interest to what is said, pay attention to the kind of words used, why does the person want to express him- or herself in exactly this way, what do they aim for? But you can listen critically, trying to find something to hang your critique on, or you can listen for pauses so that you yourself can have the chance to say something. The two ways of listening produce totally different results, both for oneself and for the person that you are listening to. If you listen with curiosity and interest, then you will gain new information you did not know before and at the same time, you will communicate to the other person, “I like listening to you and hear what you say.” That is a pleasant and life-affirming experience for anybody. But if someone barely listens without paying attention, he/she will not know anything new after the conversation and has at the same time communicated to the person speaking, “I don’t expect you to say anything worth listening to.” Someone who can not follow the conversation or does not respond to remarks runs the risk of being seen as either stupid or impudent. Of course, it can also be that the person has difficulty hearing, but that fact is seldom considered as a possibility by the ignored person. Expressions as “Are you deaf or what?” are highly negatively charged. In other words, you manage conversation with your ears and decide if the person you are talking to will feel that he or she has been understood and accepted or will feel rejected and useless. It is easy to realize when someone is listening with eager interest. It can be more tricky to realize when someone is not listening. You can not-listen quite openly like the old psychologist who placed his ear trumpet on his lap when he wanted to say something to a client. He did not want to be interrupted! But you can also pretend to listen and this way of not-listening is not nearly as considerate as the undisguised way, because if it is not found out the speaker cannot defend himself. As you see, our attitudes towards listening range from the active listener to letting what is said pass over our heads. If a person with the latter attitude furthermore becomes hearing impaired then it can be very difficult to understand each other. The hearing loss signifies that the person has to do something extra to assure good communication with their surroundings and reduce the risk of misunderstandings. However, people with hearing losses are not necessarily aware that they have a choice. A friend of mine revealed this to me by asking why I was so difficult to get in contact with. My embarrassed answer was that I have a hearing impairment, and he responded, “I wish it was only that!” That made me understand that my hearing impairment was one thing, but added to this was my great fear of being disqualified as communication partner if the truth of my bad hearing was discovered, and this last fear was in fact more limiting to me than the hearing loss itself. If as a person with hearing loss you are satisfied with the belief that you have no difficulties hearing, things can become complicated. There are a lot of examples of this. For example, I had to give a presentation about laughter in a group and said something that I thought was funny. They all laughed except one, who only looked at me with a poker face and said, “You cannot cope!” I promptly answered: “Why do you think that?” She asked, “Think what?” She had actually said, “Have you seen Soap?” (the comedy soap opera from the ‘70s). I had expected a critique from her and interpreted what she said according to that expectation. It is really embarrassing to reveal your inner thoughts by the way you misinterpret things. Another example was when my kids were small and excitedly told me things that I did not catch and I did not ask them to repeat because I did not want to disrupt their happiness in telling me. It sounds as if I was considerate, but I was not. My children have since told me, that they felt as if a bucket of cold water was spilled on them, when I put on my polite and smiling face and said, “yeah?!” The Fear of Not Hearing Correctly Inhibits If you won’t ask for repetition when needed, you have let the fear that other people will discover your hearing loss manage your relationships with people. If you feel like that, you are in double trouble: You both miss out on what is said and furthermore your fear that others will discover your hearing loss reduces the possibility of communicating better. Where does this fear come from? I have understood it this way: It is possible to create an identity in consequence of disappointments. As long as everything works as it should, you never think of who you are. It is only when things go wrong that you begin to think, “Who am I? Why do I not succeed when everyone else does? It must be because I cannot hear. I have to hide it, or else no one will want to be around me.” It is a conflict, locked in between two contradictory desires: On the one hand you would really like to join in and hear what is said in the conversation. On the other hand, you want to avoid misunderstanding something. But when you try to listen, the risk of misunderstanding becomes greater. The Way Out of Social Isolation The desire to hide your hearing problem will have unfortunate consequences on future social interactions: You cannot ask for repetition. You feel you cannot use hearing aids, because everyone can see them. You have to prevent people from talking to you in places where you cannot hear. You feel you have to wait until the others let you in to the conversation. And you feel the conversation has to be kept narrow. One wrong word and all is lost. Even well-intentioned comments like, “Right now you hear very well,” can be taken as critique: “OK, so I usually do not hear well?” It is as if a social situation was a contractual relationship. “If I do not ask you to repeat, then you will talk clearly and will pretend you do not notice my hearing loss.” As long as you feel this way, any conversation will be a possible source of misunderstandings, insecurity and feelings of defeat. But perhaps you can consider if the benefit of hiding your hearing loss is worth the cost. The consideration should naturally have your overriding wish to be together with people as a starting point. But is this desire for contact best promoted by not telling anybody about it, or could there be a little more openness about your wish for contact without damaging the chances for the contact to come true? More openness could mean, for example, that you allow yourself to hearing things incorrectly. Eventually only occasionally. You could also acquire hearing aids, so that you can better hear those you want to communicate with. This does not guarantee good communication in all cases of course. “It is not others´ fault that I have a hearing impairment, so why should they be doing something extra to help me participate in the conversation?” Perhaps once in a while you will be lucky enough to meet people who do not mind having to repeat when needed. The more satisfying communication experiences you have, the less lonely you are, and in that way the above-mentioned paralyzing conflict will lose its power. I recommend this method warm-heartedly. Who knows? Maybe one day, no one will put up with hearing difficulties any longer, but straight away demand better hearing.