The Dark-and-Dirty Secret of People with Hearing Loss

Hearing loss changes lives. I know this because without hearing loss, I’d be married to a completely different guy and my son would look very different – like a girl, maybe?  And I know this because of the secret vice that interfered with my marital selection process.

My dark-and-dirty secret is that I’m a bluffer. Yup, I pretend to understand what’s being said, even though I may not have a clue. And I’m a good bluffer, too; I’ve had lots of practice from an unbeatable combination of lifelong hearing loss and being an actress.  If you’re looking for a talented hard of hearing bluffer, I’m your girl.deep_dark_secret

Bluffing, faking, and passing are all words that describe a habit of  99% of people with hearing loss.  And since I’ve never met anybody who did not bluff, I’m going to suggest that 100% of people with hearing loss bluff at least some of the time. Every single, last harda-hearing one of us.

We pretend we understand what’s being said – we nod, smile, say uh-huh and a thousand other little motions that assure you we’re with you all the way. But, in fact, if we were challenged, we could not repeat back what you said.

Some of us bluff occasionally but for others it’s a way of life. We bluff in our relationships, at work, with strangers and even –  it’s sad to think how low we can sink – during appointments with our hearing care professional. Our bluffing has mixed results, but they are usually not good. You end up with strange food on your restaurant plate and you laugh at the wrong moments. As my friend Myrtle says – you’ll answer questions that have never been asked and accept invitations that have never been offered.

My bluffing moments are often minor in scale, for example to speed up an otherwise boring conversation that would drag on forever if I actively participated. Sometimes, though, the situation is major. The biggest impact of bluffing is on Romance and in one of those life-defining moments, my bluffing changed my future, and it would take me years to fully realize what had happened.

It started on a moonlit beach.

In my twenties, I was dating a nice fellow whose name I can’t remember, so let’s just call him the Nice Fellow. One night, we went for a walk along the beach, which is a romantic setting for most people. (By most people, I mean the folk who don’t mind if the crashing waves wash out their friend’s voice, or who don’t need a flashlight to see their lips in the dark, or who are able to walk backwards so they can lipread. Those people.)

The Nice Fellow asked me a question. I must have asked him to repeat himself a lot that night, because I was reluctant to do it again. The question seemed to be the yes-or-no sort and I figured there was a 50-50 chance of giving the right answer. I picked no. His reaction told me that this was not only an unexpected answer, but also the wrong one. If this incident happened today, my now-evolved person with hearing loss might say, “Oh, sorry, Nice Fellow, I may have misheard you, could you repeat yourself?” But back then, I just repeated no.

Fizzle-fizzle, end of relationship. Never saw that Nice Fellow again – and to this day I have no idea what he asked me. But I can guess:

“I like you, Gael, do you like me?”


“Oh. So, you don’t want to go out any more?”


As we all know, no means no, and if you’re looking for relationship advice, I can recommend bluffing as the perfect way to poke a sharp stick in the eye of a relationship. I kicked myself for a long time afterwards because, in spite of not remembering his name, I liked that guy and my stubborn bluffing sabotaged what may have been a good thing.

But our bluffing isn’t due just to stubbornness. There’s a long list of reasons and situations that cause us to bluff, boiling down to four main categories: poor listening environments, more than two people in a conversation, speechreading impediments (light not on speaker’s face, obscured sightline of lips, poor elocution, lack of useful facial expression or body language, no context) and lack of technical access or  awareness of communication needs.

But why don’t people with hearing loss rise above this, do something about it? Why do we just keep on bluffing?  Ah, the  million dollar question. Sam Trychin, the renowned hearing loss psychologist and public speaker, writes in his Mental Health Practitioner’s Guide (1987): The majority of people who are hard of hearing have had a gradual loss over a number of years. For them there may not have been a distinctly recognizable crisis period, but they have had a long time in which to develop and strengthen a variety of bad habits, such as bluffing, which can be highly resistant to change.

The reasons for bluffing are individual and complex, dictated by personality, type and degree of hearing loss, and understanding and acceptance of the loss. At the first presentation of my workshop The Masks of Hearing Loss (Bluffing 101), participants shared many reasons for bluffing:

  • Hide the fact or severity of hearing loss
  • Desire not to appear inadequate or slow
  • Don’t want to annoy or interrupt others
  • It’s easier, a habit
  • Tired of asking for repetition
  • Exhausted by trying to keep up
  • Conscious choice to ‘sit this one out’
  • Lack of assertiveness and communication skills

We need to train ourselves to stop bluffing, which is a powerful recipe for trouble, and be more honest about what we do or don’t hear. I ended up with a fabulous husband but…what if…on that moonlit night on the beach….?


About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.


  1. Gael, loved your article! Thank you for writing this! I am not hoh. I am the person that recognizes something different in a person who is hoh. I go by vibes in people so if someone is bluffing me I feel it and it feels like something is wrong but I can’t put my finger on it. Because my communication style relies on vibes from others this makes it difficult for me. I struggle with this. This is why I searched this topic out and found your great article. I’m trying to understand my relationships with those that are hoh and that happen to be in my life currently. So…I am appreciative for knowing this but unfortunately I am afraid that I may still have a hard time connecting. I don’t know if you have talked to other non-hoh about their perceptions but am curious if anyone has had a similar experience as mine. If you don’t mind I would love to hear back and also are you able to give me feedback on what is it that I can do to connect better with an hoh person? Thanks again for this!

  2. I used to feel bad about bluffing but I eventually realized that it’s a perfectly valid communication technique — as long as you ARE willing to say, if/when it doesn’t work “Wait, I thought I understood you but I guess I didn’t. Can you say that again?”

    I’m profoundly deaf — can’t hear a thing — but I speechread very well. There is just absolutely no way that I am going to actually comprehend every word out of a person’s mouth, so some amount of “bluffing” is necessary to get some good flow going. If someone says “Hi, how are you doing?,” I can usually get the gist of it even if I didn’t understand each individual word. If the person says “Hi,” and I say “what?” and then “how,” and I say “what?” and then “are”…. we will never get anywhere.

    So, I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s a bad habit in and of itself. I frequently “bluff” my way through big swaths of a conversation, holding the information that I did glean in my head, ready for it to make sense — and then I get the crucial piece of information and it DOES make sense. Retroactively, it all clicks into place, and I’ve understood everything.

    Yet if someone stopped me and told me to recite back what they were saying in the middle of all of that, I wouldn’t have a clue.

    This is why I get mad when people require frequent proof that I can understand them. A) at a given point I probably don’t, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t later, and B), it really messes with both the flow of what they’re saying and their microexpressions. If they are talking about Jane being a great cook but they are thinking “I don’t think you can understand me,” what I pick up is distrust of Jane and I try to integrate that into the cooking thing. Did she fail to wash her hands one time? What? It throws me off.

    Think about what you’re saying, not about whether I can understand what you’re saying.

    People know that if I genuinely don’t understand something I will come back to it, and I’ve trained them to relax about not tracking my understanding on a minute-by-minute basis. There are people I deal with regularly who have no idea that I’m DEAF, they think I just have some mild hearing loss. (I just found out that someone I’ve known for 9 years thought I had enough hearing to talk on the phone. Nope.) As in, it works.

    BUT, I completely agree that once it’s clear that you’ve misunderstood something, you gotta do something about that.

  3. Gael,
    As a hearing-impaired actor and bluffer, you wrote a most enjoyable piece about some of the communication challenges you have faced.
    Are you a better bluffer because you are an actor?
    Consider my situation: I am hearing-impaired, and probably do my share of bluffing, but I am married to an actor. Do you think she knows when I’m bluffing? We hardly have any tiffs, so I must intuitively be bluffing the right answers to her questions.

    1. Hi acting ability may support my bluffing – but that’s not a good thing! lol. And I wouldn’t presume to guess about your wife’s ability to see through your bluffing. Do you dare ask her?

  4. 3, 4 and 7 are what I do when the situation arises More than a good bluffer, I am a good guesser. And I am extremely quick witted! Snarky too. But, I have to be thoughtful about the social situation/audience that I am dealing with. One size does not fit all as a strategy. Some folks and situations I simply write off and head to a corner to observe and self reflect. And I have no inhibitions to talk – none, but can sense when my physiological encyclopedia is not welcome. Sometimes I do not care and share anyway. And I can sense when the lack of respect door mat is out too. Those irritate proud imbeciles offend me. I am determined to be competent not just a bluffer. If I ponder long enough, I can figure out what the conversations are about – but it is also cognitively and emotionally and by association physically draining and exhausting..

  5. Funny, of all the things I have written about, I never wrote about this. You beat me to the punch. Yes, of course I bluff. I have even proudly told people, that I am so highly functioning that I can “pass” for hearing. And the fact is, I AM highly functioning. But of course I bluff!

    I have been severely HOH since I was at least three years old and wearing hearing aids since then as well. If I bluffed as a child, I was totally unaware. Awareness of my limitations dawned on me, very slowly, in my adult years. Over the past 13 years, I have definitely been aware that I bluffed. With awareness of my bluffing I have been able to reduce it and to stand up for my hearing loss and ask for repeats of statements or questions. I became my own ally.

    However, there are two distinct situations in which I would continue to bluff, consciously. One was when I would receive a phone call from a potential employer. I never wished to reveal my disability to anyone before they met me in person. The second has been since my late husband died and I have been looking to remarry — I do not reveal my disability to men before they have met me in person. So, I bluff if they call me on the phone.

    Which is why I LOVE email and instant messaging and try to use those as much as possible before I meet any potential date or employer.

    Thanks for writing this article.


  6. There’s another reason too…though not as obvious to anyone….
    That is – we *thought* we heard it correctly or, put another way, we believed what our ears told us. Which, by the very nature tells us all that we should NOT. Do NOT trust your ears. Ask ask ask. Assume you heard it incorrectly and always – always respond, paraphrasing what was said to make sure you understood.
    Checking for clarification is huge. We may have heard the words but missed the meaning. It happens…A LOT!

  7. For me, bluffing is much more likely to happen if I’ve been struggling to understand speech for a long time with no or little effort from other people to improve the communication. Other people’s behavior is important. If they are responsive and appear to care about my ability to understand them, then that feels my efforts to improve the communication are welcome.

    We cannot help but feel affected by how other people respond to our needs as people with hearing loss. My own soft spoken father made no effort to hide his annoyance when I asked him to repeat himself. This felt like he didn’t want to bother with accommodating me at all.

    We can often but not always choose people who will be kinder, more sensitive, and more accommodating to our needs. But when we encounter people who can’t or won’t accommodate us, or situations that are overwhelming, bluffing can seem like the only option to take when we can’t think of what else to do.

  8. Gael, an absolutely GREAT story! A bull’s eye! Those of us with hearing loss, and those who live with us, know so intimately this dark-and-dirty secret! Thanks for sharing the message and advice with your great humor. I loved it!


  9. So true. I want to send a link to this article to everyone who ever works with my son. Because he is an excellent bluffer, and so often people just won’t believe me when I tell them!

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