Sneaky Tricks to Hear Un-Hearable Sounds

Gael Hannan
May 5, 2015

Oh, those people with hearing loss!  Always going on about how we can’t hear this and we can’t hear that, wailing over the sounds missing in action, like the almighty “S” in speech or breezes in the bushes.

One of the bitterest pills of hearing loss is that even if we use assistive technology and even if we faithfully practice good communication, there are some sounds we may never hear again.

But is there nothing we can do about that?  Instead of throwing up our hands, maybe we could bypass conventional communication and try a new, sneaky strategy?

Take that “S” for example.  The usefulness of this high-frequency hissing is over-rated, in my opinion. I’ve made it this far in life without hearing a lot of S-es, which is why, for most of my life, I mispronounced pizza as pee-zuh (said slowly) instead of peet-suh (said quickly) until someone said I was driving them nuts and could I please say it right.  I may not always hear those S-es, but I know they’re there. A hearing person can hear the pluralizing S at the end of a word, but I have to either sense it or figure it out through life experience. On laundry day, for example, when a family member says, “leh putta eet onna bed”, you know they’re talking about putting not one, but two sheets on the bed.  Because that’s what you do when you change the bed—unless, of course, you’re one of those people who go with only a bottom sheet and a duvet.

But there is another option.  Ask your friends and family to avoid using any sibilant (airy, hissy, hard-to-hear-or-see) sounds in their speech. Yes, that’s right—ban the S-es! Try different ways to pluralize or get a thought across.  For example, the Hearing Husband might ask me, “Have the cats been fed since breakfast?”  A non-sibilant alternative might be, “Have the little cat and her brother had their lunch?”  Instead of “Honey, have you seen my sandals”, try “Do you know where I could find the open-air foot covering for my left foot and the one for my right foot, too?”

Nah, forget that; it’s too much work.  For some words and sounds that are difficult to understand, we have to depend on Context and Speaker Familiarity, the communication clues that we can’t see or hear, but that give us mountains of information. I know we have two cats. And I know that my husband, who is always looking for something, is trying to get ready for some outdoor activity.  It’s very clear to me that he is looking for sandals, not candles.many-adventures-winnie-tree (2)

With acquired or progressive hearing loss, an increasing number of sounds become challenging and then, ultimately, mere memories.  Even with advanced hearing aids, I can’t hear the whispering of those breezes in the bush.  I could stick my head right down in the shrub and I still might not hear the wee leaves moving.  The sound is too high and too faint. But I can appreciate the visual beauty of wind, and also the clues it provides.  If the wind causes a tree’s branches to wave wildly, that’s all the info I need to know it’s time to grab Toto and get somewhere safe. Although using our vision to support our hearing isn’t a trick, it often seems that way to hearing people; some accuse us of selective hearing, while others feel we can’t really be that hard of hearing if we can understand what they’re saying. Sigh.

But here’s a real trick: make listening tough for the hearing people, too. Noisy restaurants are challenging for people with hearing loss. Hearing people may have to work a bit harder at it, but they can still communicate and enjoy a meal. Why not go to a really loud place, with a volume level like an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day. The hearing people are forced to speak much more loudly and they may ask you to yell, too.  Here’s the sweet bit: sometimes a seasoned speechreader can understand yelled words better than words delivered at normal volume because the words come better-enunciated and slower—it’s not easy to speak fast at high volume. This doesn’t work for everyone, however, and the noise might set off gongs in your head and cause permanent hearing loss.  Please note: we do not want people to shout at us in a regular or quiet environment. It hurts our ears.

Be sneaky. Play tricks. Do whatever it takes to understand what’s going on.

  • Rephrase comments
  • Eliminate words that are difficult to hear or speechread
  • Manipulate the listening environment to your advantage.
  • Know the topic being discussed.

But whatever you do, don’t bluff—don’t pretend you know what’s being said, when you don’t.  That’s not sneaky, it’s stupid. It’s also dishonest and gets you nowhere, except into isolation, which is the exact opposite of where you want to be: connected with people and the world around you.


photos courtesy of “Get Smart” and Winnie the Pooh.

  1. Hi Gael,
    My favorite “trick” is to read the daily papers regularly, as someone always seem to have something say regarding current events. My conversations will be so much easier for me if I read about the new Royal baby’s name as “Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana” before someone tells it to me for the first time…

  2. My Hubby uses voice dictation for his texts to me and rarely proofreads them. It usually takes several times of reading them, figuring out the subject, then finally deciding what he really meant to say. I show them to him later along with “See why it’s so hard for me to understand what you’re saying?”

  3. My husband speaks like a ventriloquist. Very little to no lip movement I have told him, many times, but now that HE has hearing aids, which give him almost better than normal hearing, he seems to wonder, “Hey, whats the big deal?”

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