Hearing Loss – It’s All in the Face

“I would not know how I am supposed to feel about many stories if not for the fact that the TV news personalities make sad faces for sad stories and happy faces for happy stories.”   Dave Barry

I am a reader of faces. Not a professional one, although there is such a profession, according to several websites. Chinese doctors have used the ancient art of face reading since the time of Confucius to diagnose and treat their patients.  These professionals and I have something in common – we are both analyzing the person with the face. But the difference between us is that while they are helping other people, I am most concerned with helping myself. They study faces for diagnostic reasons; I stare at your face to figure out what you’re saying. I’m not apologizing for being selfish – reading faces is just what we people with hearing loss (PWHL) do.

But we’re not the only ones. Even hearing people use speechreading sometimes, but there’s a difference in what we do with the information.  Speechreading might be necessary for a hearing person in a noisy bar, but for me, it’s the dividing line between comprehension and gobbledy-gook.

When I’m chatting with you, I’m actually working very hard. I’m using my vision, hearing, and knowledge of the subject matter to decipher what you’re saying. And all this hard work shows because apparently I frown – a lot.  I put so much energy and focus into understanding someone, unless they’re unintelligible or boring, in which case, I’ve been known to just pretend to listen. I grew up with my mother’s constant reminder to “Smile, girl!”  “I AM smiling!” was my equally constant reply.   But, recently I saw a  video of one of my presentations and was horrified to see a permanent frown stuck between my eyes.  I’m trying to remember to smile more – which must be frightening for someone when a grin suddenly and inexplicably appears on my face.

Hearing people have it easy – they don’t have to be in the vicinity to understand someone, whereas PWHL will do almost anything to see a speaking face – turn on the lights, run to another room, spin the talker around, or vault across the kitchen table. We do this because we have to. Most of us, anyway.

“I don’t have to read lips anymore,” trilled a woman who had recently received a cochlear implant.

She was one of the first CI users I met, over 15 years ago, and I felt an immediate, searing stab of jealousy. But I said, “Wow, that’s amazing. I’m so happy for you.” And I was…sort of…although my inner bitch noted that her eyes still scanned my face as I spoke. “Really, girl?” I thought. “You’re speechreading me right now.”

She may have been reverting to the habits of a lifetime. If my hearing loss were to dissolve all of a sudden, would I stop reading people’s faces? Probably not – old habits die hard. For example, occasionally I say pardon even if I hear what the person said. My mouth is so used to spitting out that single-word question that sometimes it happens automatically – which means I then have to wait for the person to repeat themselves. But it’s better than saying, “Hey, just kidding, I heard you!”

Speechreading has become a natural process. Like other PWHL, I suck clues from the speaker: what the lips seem to say (only 20%-50% of speech is ‘readable’, with success depending on both the articulator and the speechreader), what’s shining out of the eyes, and facial expressions. I also note how the person uses their hands and arms, how their head tilts, and how they stand, sit or shuffle around. The speaker is like a composer – conducting all these instruments in a symphony that the audience (me) must interpret.

Sometimes, though, it’s clear that something’s a little off.  When the lips are saying one thing but the eyes are saying something different, PWHL must check if they have misinterpreted. “Uh, did you just say you’re meeting your mother at five?” “Oh, you said your brother’s lucky to be alive.”  Some speakers might use the same expression for either of those statements.

But although I’m a face-reader, I’m not a mind-reader. I can only go by what I see and hear; my speechreading skills have not given me any special insight into what a person is thinking or hiding.  This is where the ancient ‘art’ of face reading might help. For centuries, people have tried to understand aspects of a person’s character  by looking at their face. The ancient Chinese believed that the face was a reflection of one’s inner spirit. Europeans considered beauty to be synonymous with virtue, and ugliness a sign of evil. Up until the 19th century, phrenology (the study of the shape of the skull) was used to assess the guilt of a suspected criminal. I think as a medieval woman, I would have done some jail time.

With all due respect to followers of the art, the assumptions of face reading seem a bit ludicrous, especially today when makeup and plastic surgery can alter our appearance, not to mention our actual lips, eyes and noses.  Among the 100 or more points on the face providing character clues:face

Small or shifty eyes indicate an introverted and secretive nature. (Glasses might help?)

A thin upper lip reveals an inability to do well in relationships. (Beware of the thin-lipper who asks you on a date.)

A receding chin reveals a weak-willed personality. (What if the negligible chin simply runs in the family? A beard might help.)

Large lips mean a generous temperament. (Or – Botox sale!)

What matters to me is how a person uses their facial features, whether real or artificial.  I’ll watch every move they make, but I draw the line at feeling their skull in order to understand them better.

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, 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. Lipreading requires mindreading.
    This proverb comes from hundreds of years of Deaf experience
    The face needs to be pretty to look at to invite one to lipread.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.