Hearing loss isn’t funny. Not to the person who has it, anyway.
Some hearing loss moments can spark a smile or a giggle or even a laugh–although most of us will laugh later—like two months or so. That’s when you’ll tell the story of being in a group conversation and someone says “I just hate bugs” and you put down your drink and reach across the coffee table with arms open, saying “I’ll give you one.” Eventually it becomes clear that you thought you’d heard, “I really need a hug.” Everyone else finds it hilarious, and although you may laugh on the outside, on the inside you are shriveling with embarrassment.
There are a lot of laughs in hearing loss, but what’s important is who does the laughing and why and whether it’s real or faked. If I laugh and I mean it, that’s good. If I fake a laugh, it means I’m trying to get through an awkward moment as quickly as possible. If someone else laughs at my faux pas, then it can be damn painful. In aural rehabilitation classes that teach speechreading and communication strategies, we’re told that to live well with hearing loss, we should ‘keep our sense of humor’.
But what if you don’t have this important attribute? And by whose standards is your sense of humor judged? If we don’t laugh at the bug’n’hug or some other story of mis-hearing, does that mean we are devoid of a sense of humor? Or is it simply that in that moment, our pride has taken a blow and we’re just not able to cough up enough easygoing-ness to say “oh, ha-ha, whatever”.
And is it a thigh-slapper when you repeat what you thought you heard and it’s so far out in left field that people pause, looking shocked, trying to figure out any possible connection between what you just said in response to what they just said? It’s a testament to our human-ness that people with hearing loss ever dare open our mouths! Why risk saying the wrong thing, or boring people with our needs, and seeing their eyes roll as they think, “Oh, here we go again, the speak-up-slow-down-face-me routine!” (OK, maybe they don’t think that; maybe the eyeball spinning is due to frustration with themselves. “OMG, I’ve done it again! I’ve forgotten to face this person I love!” Ya think?)
One of the hallmarks of good comedy is timing. People with hearing loss may be funny as hell, but when we’re involved in conversations, especially with more than two people at a time, we’re not so good at the timing thing. We either come in too soon or too late. We often “step on” what someone is saying because we didn’t hear them talking (or thought they had finished). And it’s definitely not funny when we get the punch line 30 seconds after everybody else, by which time it’s been repeated twice and everyone else has stopped laughing and is waiting for us to catch up.
There’s a positive spin on that laugh delay, though. One of my early hearing loss presentations was to a small group of Toronto seniors who had been meeting, as one gentleman put it, since before Moses went up the mountain. Most participants were hard of hearing, except for one deaf-blind woman who was there with her intervener. I made a funny comment and everyone laughed and I kept talking. But two or three (non-funny) comments later, there was a shout of laughter from the woman who was deaf-blind who had just received the joke. It stopped me in my tracks for a nanosecond and her laughter made my heart sing. I had never communicated with a deaf-blind person, and I learned it can take just a little longer for the intervener to communicate what has been said.
Most of us do manage to find the hearing loss laughs on occasion. Last week, sitting next to my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson at a family dinner, I could feel him looking up at the side of my head. When I looked down, he smiled and turned his head so I could see the piece of bread crust he’d stuck in his ear, creating an exact replica of my own beige in-the-ear hearing aid. I laughed out loud.
And I have to admit that it is a bit funny—although it shouldn’t be—to see the frozen face of a hard-of-hearing person trying to figure out what was just said, before having to say pardon. You know the look: eyebrows drawn slightly together, eyes slightly shifted up or to the right or left, mouth open a crack, with the tongue resting on the upper teeth. An alternative is the well-known ‘there’s-nobody-home-here’ blank face. When I see this on another person with hearing loss, I have to stifle a sympathetic smile—and I definitely wouldn’t laugh.
Not like the people who are impatient with our faux pas and mis-hears. There’s an edge to the laugh that comes from the stranger—perhaps the retail person or someone you’ve just met at a social event—who, when you ask them to repeat something for a second time, doesn’t know what else to do. They’re not amused, just frustrated and possibly confused, having had little experience with hearing loss. But instead of allowing their impatience to show fully, they give a little laugh, before having another go at trying to make themselves understood.
Hearing loss is not funny. It just causes a lot of laughs. But I wonder why we don’t see many jokes flying around about arthritis. Or people holding back their laughs about psoriasis. Just saying….
Laughing Lola image used with permission by Portia.