Fessing Up to Hearing Loss: It’s a Gender Thing

Gael Hannan
February 2, 2016

Comments from three different conversations at a Class of ’65 high school reunion, held in the gym.

Man:  Jeez, it’s hard to hear with all this noise.

Man:  I’m wearing hearing aids these days.

Woman:  I have hearing loss, and this noise is awful. Can we move outside to continue talking?

Who do you think is going to have the best conversation?

The first man didn’t admit to anything personal, merely suggesting he wasn’t hearing well because of the current noise. The second guy admitted to hearing loss, but forced the other person to either guess at a solution or go looking for someone easier to talk to (or because he or she never really liked the guy back in high school). The woman pulled all her rabbits out of the hat: This is my problem, the noise is making communication tough, but I want to keep talking to you (because I always wanted to be your girlfriend in high school and maybe it’s not too late), so how about we try this solution?

When we have hearing loss, there are times we just have to ask for help in order to communicate. Can’t we just admit it takes two to tango-talk; one person makes the sound and the other interprets, then responds. Back and forth, teeter and totter, ping and pong, that’s how spoken communication works. And when we don’t get what was said, we need to ask for a repeat, or clarification, preferably explaining why.


Not for men, apparently. One difference in disclosure style runs along gender lines.  Women tend to be better at disclosing their hearing loss and offering communication solutions.

Very little research has been done on the decision making process related to disclosing a hearing loss, according to a study by researchers Jessica West, Jacob Low and Konstantina Stankovicthat was recently published in Ear and Hearing. (The 2011 AARP/ASHA National Poll on Hearing Health is a wonderful study on hearing attitudes of older Americans.)  In last fall’s study, 337 people were surveyed at a Massachusetts hearing clinic about the impact of hearing loss on their lives and how and IF they told other people about it.

In their study, Revealing Hearing Loss: A Survey of How People Verbally Disclose Their Hearing Loss, West, Low and Stankovic found three basic strategies used to address hearing loss:

  1. Multipurpose disclosure uses phrases that convey, “Hey, I’ve got a hearing problem and here’s what we need to do about it.” This group was mostly female, as well as people of either gender who had felt positively supported when revealing hearing loss in the past.
  2. Basic disclosure uses some words that indicate a hearing loss – but not much else. As in “I’m not hearing you”, but leaving the person wondering what they’re supposed to do about it. This group was predominantly male.
  3. Nondisclosure phrases do not specify personal hearing loss. “Wow, it’s hard to hear in this bar, eh?”  People in this category tend not reveal hearing loss in group settings.

But why the male reticence to provide more information?  I’m no psychologist. Is it the men from Mars, women from Venus thing?  Is it tied to why many men won’t ask for directions when they are clearly and utterly lost?  (With the Hearing Husband, if something’s wrong with the GPS he prefers to depend on intuition rather than ask for help, or until I roll down the window to yell for directional help.) But this was a small study and not an ironclad statement of what’s what.  I appreciate that for every man who is incapable of coughing out a ‘I have hearing loss, please speak up”, there’s a man who looks you in the eye and asks you to move your hand away from your mouth so he can see what you’re saying.  On the other hand, I know women who can’t hold eye contact longer than a blink and who’d walk over hot coals before asking for help.

Writer Nathan Rouse offers three reasons why men don’t want to admit they need help.  One is they don’t want to appear to be ‘weak’ or ‘broken’.  The second is that they may not realize they need support strategies, and are unaware of the impact their reluctance to admit their ‘issue’ has on their life and relationships. (This is common in hearing loss.)  The third is that they don’t want accountability of what they consider a private issue; they don’t want people to keep asking how they’re doing with the hearing loss thing.

Speaking from experience as a speechreading instructor, men tend to struggle more with speechreading than women. Most participants in my classes are female, but the men who have attended struggle with the sustained eye contact necessary for successful speechreading. Most admitted a habit of manipulating a situation rather than disclosing hearing loss. But hey! They did come to the speedreading class, showing a desire to change.

I’m sure there are a million studies showing how, traditionally, men were raised to show less emotion, while we women were raised to be nurturers, hand-holders and eye-gazers.

But times are changing, aren’t they?  Both the stigma of hearing loss and the need to be seen as powerful and self-sufficient is disappearing, right?  We’re raising our sons (and daughters) and training the men (and women)  in our lives to look people in the eye and be open about their needs, including hearing loss – aren’t we?




Ear and Hearing Online, October 28, 2015 https://journals.lww.com/ear-hearing/Abstract/publishahead/Revealing_Hearing_Loss___A_Survey_of_How_People.99260.aspx

Nathan Rouse: 3 Reasons Why Men Don’t Ask for Help https://www.nathanrouse.org/3-reasons-why-men-dont-ask-for-help

  1. Hearing aids are too damned expensive to begin with, they don’t work most of the time when you need them, they don’t last very long. cost too much to repair. AND I don’t feel like financing your excessive life style. So your wife wants a new fur outfit and a trip to the Mediterranean. So does mine. I think I will spend a week with my wife in the Caribbean and just say huh, what did you say a little while longer.

  2. It’s the speech reading thing too. Today it finally dawned on me that it irritates my husband when I “stare” at his face while he’s talking. He thought I was criticizing or judging him as his spoke. Wrong! Just trying to hear with my eyes. I guess men think it’s some kind of primeval challenge to stare… They’d just rather appear aloof or plain dumb than admit they need help hearing.

    1. Gael Hannan Author

      Sue, that reaction to our staring intently into a person’s face is very common. To make it worse, we’re often frowning in concentration which can not only be off-putting, but a bit scary too. I write about this in my book “The Way I Hear It”.

  3. Great article! I do know men who are exceptions though . And women who try to hide their hearing loss. But in general it might be a gender thing alright.

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