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.
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….?