There are some things that people with hearing loss are not particularly good at, generally speaking: taking the minutes at meetings, hearing a pin drop, working as a UN translator, and playing the Whisper Game.
In this game, also known as ‘Telephone’ or ‘Chinese Whispers’, a group of people sits in a circle or around the room. A written message is shown to the first person, who then whispers the words to the person beside them, and it passes similarly along the line. Out loud, the last person says what he or she heard – usually to shouts of laughter at how much the message has changed from the original written words. What started out as “This year, the Florida weather people are warning us to expect a big snow fall in July” may end up as, “Horrible stuff happens to people who know the government’s secrets.”
I want to say two things about the Whisper Game. The first is that it should tear to shreds the urban myth that says 10% of the population has hearing loss; it’s clear from the Whisper Game that the actual number is around 90%.
Secondly – welcome to my world.
When playing the Whisper Game, ‘hearing’ people are getting a lick of the everyday hearing loss life. What I think I heard may be completely and dramatically different from what was actually said, as illustrated in this exchange with a friend some years ago.
Friend: Gael, would you like a diet Pepsi?
Me: Oh no – fleas! That’s terrible.
Friend: (Pauses.) No, I’m asking if you would like some pop!
Me: Oh. I thought you said Digby has fleas.
Luckily I indicated what I thought I’d heard; otherwise other friends would have heard about how poorly Digby the dog was being cared for.
But back to whispering, something that gives hard of hearing people the willies. Whispering is about intimate secrets just beyond our reach, just beyond our capability. When someone whispers into our ear, their message is instantly compromised. If people whispered at us the same way they talk to us – face to face, with reasonable lip movement and facial expression – we would have a fighting chance of comprehension.
But that’s not how people whisper. They move in close to our ear, their lips out of our sightline. ‘S’ and ‘F’ sound the same and emotions are colorless, because there is no tone of voice or facial expressions to help us out. The puffs of air we feel against our ear tell us nothing – they are just staccato bits of oxygen tickling our pinnas.
Some people, when we tell them we don’t understand whispering, will try whispering harder. This is like speaking loudly to a person who doesn’t understand your language – it doesn’t work. And if we jerk our neck to face the whisperer, it looks like we’re trying to kiss. We’re not, but we do worry that you’ll accidentally spit on our hearing aids or cochlear implant.
As a child or teenager with hearing loss, the announcement that we were going to play the Whisper Game immediately panicked me. What nine-year-old child is going to say, “Oh, let’s not play that game; I have hearing loss and it’s difficult to hear whispering. What about something else – anybody fancy five card stud?” Even adults aren’t that forthcoming – they say something mature like, “I have to go to the loo…so go ahead, don’t wait for me.”
Whispering has no voice. Words are formed the usual way with the tongue, lips and jaw, but instead of vibrating as in regular speech, vocal cords are adducted (move inward) to create audible turbulence, a hissing quality (Wikipedia). An interesting fact: while it uses less air and therefore less effort than normal speech, whispering tires the vocal cords more quickly. Actors or singers on vocal rest will not whisper for this reason. Vocal strain is also a good reason not to whisper to people with hearing loss. It’s like banging your head against a brick wall – it gets you nowhere and can possibly cause damage.
Some family doctors use the whispered voice test to detect possible hearing loss in their patients, so here’s a tip. During your next annual physical, if you feel little gusts of air coming at you from behind, say, “I hear you, doctor, there’s no need to yell.” If it was the doctor doing the whisper test, you just passed and are good for another year.
I love that term audible turbulence, because that’s how whispering can make me feel – anxious, upset and turbulent. Whispering is only 30dB (normal speech is approximately 60dB), so there’s no way I’m going to understand it without relying 100% on speechreading.
I wish I could understand it, because whispering looks intimate and beautiful, but I can’t. So to anyone who feels the urge to whisper in my ear, make us both happy – use your voice and show me the lips.
When You Whisper To Me
If you whisper in my ear,
Or at me, face to face
Your words are as comprehensible,
As those uttered by a snake.
(Worse, actually, because when a snake hisses, its meaning is crystal clear.)
I wish I could hear whispering
It seems intimate, connecting
But when you start whispering to me
It’s an exercise in frustration.
(And, you know, it makes me want to hit you, because I’ve told you this before.)
There are alternatives to whispering
Such as facing me, or speaking low
You could write it down, perhaps
Or, simply put your thoughts on hold.
(Or do us both a favor – go whisper to someone else.)
So, when you start to whisper to me,