People with hearing loss bluff. It’s what we do, a basic fact of our lives. We pretend to understand what’s being said and what new direction the conversation is heading (if we got it in the first place), whereas in reality we have lost the connection and so we fake it.
It’s not that we want to bluff. Exactly the opposite—we’d love to be fully engaged with what other people are saying, in the exact moment they’re saying it. Unfortunately, our reliance on visual speech cues makes it difficult to follow the ping-pong nature of conversation or when background noise obliterates speech sounds.
For the record, I am vehemently opposed to bluffing. It’s dishonest to other people and counter-productive to our own well-being. Yet in spite of my personal vendetta against bluffing, I still do it. Yep, ignoring my own best intentions, I bluff. Like last night at a house party; people were gathered around the living room playing instruments and singing and I was in the nearby kitchen chatting with a nice man—a stranger to me—who had a mustache, soft voice and a habit of not maintaining eye contact. We were talking about the town I have just moved to, but I was understanding little of what he said. My choices: ask for repetition every few words, make him nervous by asking him to join me out on the deck where it was dark but quieter, terminate the conversation by walking over to the food table—or bluff. I continued bluffing for a couple of minutes before hightailing it to the guacamole.
But when I bluff, I’m really good at it—I’ve had lots of practice. Mind you, anyone who knows me well would recognize that I was bluffing, but this fellow couldn’t possibly recognize that I was engaged in a survival tactic. If you feel forced to bluff—even though you know other people are active in a conversation where you are only a phantom participant—at least do it well.
Never use a blank face. The zombie face where there is no light behind the eyes is a dead (a pun) giveaway. Any engaged person has some life in their face—facial features have to move occasionally. Try a little animation with the head, eyes and mouth.
Copy other people. Keep a discreet lookout for how other people are reacting. Are they serious, laughing, bored? Of course, not everyone reacts the same way to a speaker, but keeping a shifty eye on other people while appearing to be listening to the speaker is a good bluffing skill to perfect.
Make listening noises. When someone is talking, throw in some non-word sounds that give the impression you’re following then: hmm, wow, ohhh, etc. Don’t overdo it, or you’ll come across as an odd person who makes weird noises.
Use facial expressions. This works well in combo with the listening noises. You want to show reactions to what’s being said. You can copy these from other people or if it’s just you and the speaker, take cues from the speaker’s own face, tone of voice and body movements. Raised eyebrows, smiles or frowns, an understanding nod, or that little pfft sound made by blowing air out your lips which isn’t quite a scoff but shows amazed agreement.
Talk all the time. That way you don’t have to listen to or understand what anyone else is saying.
Make up stupid excuses for leaving the conversation.
“Hey man, would love to keep chatting, but gotta plant the tulip bulbs.”
“Oh sheesh, is that the time?!”
“Excuse me, I’ll just go and wash the floor—no, no, keep chatting, I don’t need help.”
(On the phone) “Sarah, the line is breaking up, your voice is all garbled..if I lose you, I’ll call back later.” (Then hang up.)
Interject and repeat words. Because we do hear many of the words being said, although not enough of them or in the right order to make sense of the discussion, repeating words or phrases you do hear is a neat trick. Someone might say (and this is all you understand), “Let’s…really fast…but..on Thursday.” You repeat, “On Thursday.” And the other person goes, “Yeah, Thursday, can you believe it?” You’re good for at least another minute of bluffing before you get caught.
And eventually, at some point, you are going to get caught. Even if you make it through the ‘conversation’, you are still caught in the dark, with no idea of what just went down. But if you’re prepared to take that risk, if you really want to be a bluffing pro—then by all means add these methods to your arsenal of tricks.
Or, here’s an idea—you could be honest. Explain (or remind) others of your hearing loss and work out a better communication environment that works for everyone. Because of the nature of hearing loss, bluffing is a built-in component of how we interact. But we have the choice of learning to become a better bluffer or a better communicator. It’s a work in progress—trust me, I know.