What’s That Sound?

“What’s that sound?” I ask the Hearing Husband.

“A dog barking down the street”, he replies.

“What’s that?”

“The fridge coming on.”

“What’s that?”

“A car alarm going off.”

“What’s that?”

“The cats play-wrestling.”

“What’s that?”

“The oven timer going off.  For a long time.”

“Oh shit!”

Hearing people don’t always know what we don’t hear, or when we don’t hear it.  How could they?  They perceive sound the way they breathe—naturally and without thinking–and the sound doesn’t usually interfere with what they are doing.   While watching a movie, they may mentally register a sound outside, yet not miss a beat of the movie.  Unless, of course, it’s their car alarm waking up the neighborhood.

People with hearing loss don’t usually function that way.  If we hear a sound that we can’t make sense of, we don’t usually shrug it off.  Because if we hear something, it must be significant!  A person with hearing loss may hear what might normally be a familiar sound – a dog barking, for example – but because it’s not in close proximity or we can’t see what’s causing the noise, the sound could be anything.  To us, the sound is void of the typical acoustic characteristics that identify it as a barking animal.  So we either go looking for the sound, or we ask whoever is on hand for validation that A, there is a sound and B, what is causing the sound.

After adopting hearing aids or getting a cochlear implant, people with hearing loss often hear sounds for which they had lost acoustical memory.   It’s like a new sound that they have never heard before and so cannot recognize, at first.  They must re-learn the sounds of clocks, refrigerators, or the ‘s’ sound.  And sometimes, as in the case of my friend Marilyn Dahl, the sounds are new.

Marilyn had been hard of hearing and then deaf for so many years that she didn’t know that the microwave oven beeps when the food being ‘cooked’ is ready.   At family gatherings, her daughter would say, “It’s ready, Mom.” Marilyn was amazed at her daughter’s amazing sense of timing, at being able to guess when 10 minutes was up.  After receiving her cochlear implant, she heard the scream of the microwave and was shocked. “Why didn’t somebody tell me it made a sound?”

If I’m with another person, I can ask about a sound, as in the above questions, which are a short sampling of how I plague the Hearing Husband.  (Mind you, I don’t ask all the questions at once.) On one occasion when I was alone in the house, I heard what sounded like a small knocking sound.  Well, think, Gael!  What does it sound like?  A mouse asking for permission to enter through the baseboards?  A very fast ping pong game being played next door?  Unexpected rain on the roof, maybe?  A child’s beating heart?  I couldn’t locate the sound—and then it stopped.

But a few days later I heard it again.  I asked the Hearing Husband if he heard what I heard.  He did and he knew what it was.  You’ve got to be kidding me – that’s the sound of my cellphone wakeup call?    I had set the alarm on my phone, unknowingly, and the ringtone was a musical percussion piece.

Until I got in-the-ear hearing aids which helped me hear high-frequency sounds better, I did not know the sound of hands rubbing together —that slidey-sucky sound that I now know can only be two hands rubbing back and forth.  The movement is something I’ve always understood when I see it, or even make it.  Whoo-boy, this is gonna be good.  Or, we’re gonna make some money.   Or, you’re getting ready to do something, or your hands are greasy or wet, or they’re cold.  Hands-rubbing is not really a movement or gesture that people need to hear, so how was I to know?

My hearing aids also gave me back the crackling sound of long hair being brushed.  My own youthful long, dark and thick hair is gone, but I heard the sound at the hair salon recently.  I still have trouble with hearing running water.  I have put my hearing aids back in after a shower or leaving a bathroom, only to re-enter a few minutes later (hopefully) to see the tap going full force, which makes me crazy.  And I don’t hear that little running-draining-toilet sound, but the sight of it makes me crazy.

I”ve never heard the small sound of people’s lips when they get dry and gummy, the little smacking noises.  When I was filming Unheard Voices¸ my video about hearing loss, I had to stop frequently for water, because the camera sound was picking up my smacking lips.  And I’ve never heard someone else’s nose whistling, although I know it happens.  I’m curious, though: is it a musical sound or an off-key whine?

Hearing gummy lips and whistling noses are not on my bucket list, but I would like to know if bubble-blowing has a sound?  Not the blowing because it does, especially if one blows hard enough. But what about the bubbles coming out of the wand – do they pop as they form, or just as they are, uh, popped out of existence?   What about swallowing—not the gagging type that children make when being forced to eat something horrible like cooked spinach—but just a simple swallow. Does that have a sound that people can hear?

So many exciting and beautiful sounds to discover – if we can hear them and identify them or if somebody tells us about them.  Imagine if someday…

“What’s that sound?” I’ll ask the Hearing Husband.

“Just me swallowing.”

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.

2 Comments

  1. I recall a man I knew who got in trouble for using the washroom at our office when it was being cleaned by the contracted staff, who were women. They were grossed out by the sound of him urinating in the stall, but he had been profoundly deaf all his life and had NO idea that there was a sound of the urine hitting the water!!

    On a much simpler note: when I first got my HA, I was surprised to find out that the little charm I had hanging on my purse was actually a bell. I couldn’t imagine where that annoying little sound was coming from!

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