Speech-Body-Reading: A HoH’s Secret Skill

Don’t mess with a speechreader!  This is a person with hearing loss—sometimes also known as a HoH (hard of hearing)—who secretly scans faces and body language to help them communicate.

A recent article on interpreting body language by Travis Bradberry in Linkedin.com, is a fascinating look at how we interpret visual cues. In Great Tricks for Reading People’s Body Language”, Bradberry translates the unspoken messages in our physical movements and facial expressions. The article focuses primarily on interactions in the business world, but it also assumes that the participants are all hearing people—you know, the ones who don’t need hearing aids.

But when people with hearing loss are involved, the decoding of visual communication becomes trickier. In the article, Bradberry says that ‘body language provides an amazing amount of information on what other people are thinking if you know what to look for”…and…”anything that can give you an edge is powerful and will streamline your path to success”.  As a person with hearing loss who seldom does traditional business meetings anymore, I aim lower—I simply want to understand what people saying. And in every moment of face to face communication, I use my well-honed speechreading skills, with varying degrees of success.

Let’s look at some of Bradberry’s points and fine-tune them to conversations involving people with hearing loss. 

Crossed arms or legs mean resistance to your ideas.  Yes, but could it not also mean that they are cold or waiting impatiently for the bathroom break?  Or, if they’re talking to a person with hearing loss, and their crossed arms are punctuated with raised or scowling eyebrows, they may just be tired of repeating themselves all the time.

Are the eyes really smiling?  Bradberry says that a real smile involves eye-wrinkles. (He said crinkles that become crow’s feet, but when you’ve reached 60, those crow’s feet have morphed into permanent wrinkles.) As a lifelong speechreader, I can recognize a thousand eye-mouth combinations with many shades of meanings, and I believe that some people can smile without crinkling their eyes. Bradberry must be referring to a full-on grin, where the widened mouth pushes the cheek-fat up into the eyes, creating crinkle-wrinkles. It’s dangerous to assume a guy’s a fake just because his smiley face is smooth. (Psst! Botox?)

A person who copies your body language is complimenting or bonding with you. This may be true in many cases, but it could also mean that this is person with hearing loss who’s not keeping up with the conversation—and trying hard to give the opposite impression. This is called bluffing, a common hearing loss tactic. If we can’t give our own responses and we’re not willing to admit we’re lost in the conversation, we just copy someone who seems to have it all together.  

Another bluffing technique is constant, sometimes exaggerated, head-nodding.  Apparently, in the business world, this could mean someone is anxious for approval. In the hard of hearing world, it means that someone doesn’t have a clue what you’re saying, but wants to appear nice and polite. 

Standing straight is a sign of power. Apparently an upright, well-braced human commands more respect and engages us more than a slouching one. That’s not good news for those of us who, in an attempt to get our ears closer to the source of sound (such as a person’s voice), kind of hunch forward. This shouldn’t push us out of the ‘power’ group—because we’re certainly trying to engage!

Eye contact—two world views.  People who hold eye contact longer than a few seconds may be trying to make you uncomfortable, or may be covering something up. But another strong possibility is that the stare-er (one who stares) may be trying to ‘read’ your face for information they can’t get from your voice and words alone. And we’re not just boring into your eyeballs, we’re also secretly scanning the rest of your face—your lips, teeth, tongue, and jaw.  And speaking of jaws, apparently clenched ones could be a sign of stress, especially if the person is normally slack-jawed.  But I’ve met a lot of people who talk keeping their mandible (lower jaw) as close as possible to the rest of the skull, possibly to avoid jaw separation anxiety. 

People with hearing loss get their understanding from many sources—their residual hearing, what they see, and what they know is being discussed. It’s a lot of work to tie a message together—but we HoHs work hard at our secret skill. 


Thank you to Dr. Travis Bradberry for inspiring this article!


About Gael Hannan

The Better HearingConsumer addresses the personal experience of living with hearing loss. Editor Gael Hannan and her occasional guest bloggers explore every corner of the hearing loss life with humor and poignancy. Comment Policy   Gael Hannan, Editor Gael Hannan is an author, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog at the Better Hearing Consumer, which has a passionate international following,Gael has written two acclaimed books, “The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss”and “Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss”, written with Shari Eberts. 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 that advocates for individuals to become more knowledgeable and successful at dealing with their hearing loss and a more inclusive society for them to live in. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, Canada. Books and other media Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss. Written with Shari Eberts and available anywhere books are sold. The Way I Hear It: A Life With Hearing Loss. Available through online bookstores. Unheard Voices, DVD, vignettes from the hearing loss life. Contact Gael Hannan to order.

1 Comment

  1. Fiddling with fingers isn’t just a sign of boredom, it means we’ve lost track of the conversation and are trying to wait until there’s a lull and we can catch it again.

    Twitching isn’t a sign of nerves, it just means the hearing aid isn’t seated right and we are trying to adjust it without moving our fingers toward/in our ears.

    Squinting isn’t a sign of (I don’t know, fill in the blank), it means we are trying to lipread and having trouble seeing you properly.

    Body language sure changes interpretations when a person with different abilities is the one projecting it!

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