The man had a gift—I’ll give him that.
The customer service rep at the driver’s licence office had the astounding ability to talk with scarcely a hint of lip movement. Seriously, he had an ironclad orbicularis oris, the large, complex muscle system that controls the lips. In conversations, his lips didn’t respond to any standard emotional orders from his brain such as smile, widen and laugh, pucker, pull together, move apart, etc.
As he talked to me, I stared at his lips hard, without blinking, and I saw—nothing. His lips were held together by an invisible magnet so powerful that a piece of paper couldn’t slide between them. I could hear sounds coming out but, although I pride myself on being a highly skilled speechreader, I couldn’t connect them with what I was seeing. Therefore, I couldn’t understand him.
He was a mumbler. If I’m the Queen of Speechreading, this guy was the Emperor of Mumbledom.
“I’m sorry?” I asked, lamely.
He glanced at me briefly, without even moving his neck, before shifting his eyes back to the screen. He made the sounds once again, “Huzzor adda? Ah-dosso, ore hayda-hurz?”
My own orbicularis oris pressed my lips together briefly while I asked the hearing gods for strength. “I have hearing loss, and I’m just not catching what you’re saying. Would you repeat one more time?”
His eyes shifted back to me and then down to the paper on his desk. He picked it up and pointed to two spaces on the form with his pen.
“Oh, you want my address? And also, my date of birth?”
He blinked his eyes in a way that told me, bingo! I finally had it right. We blinked and nodded—I think there was even a thumbs up at one point—painfully through the process until I finally understood that my new licence would arrive in the mail. I left, relieved and off-kilter at another frustrating conversation.
There may have been good reasons for the man’s mumbling—a condition, perhaps, that rendered his face immobile. Maybe he was bored sick with his job. Maybe he came from an entire family of mutterers where he was highly regarded as the mightiest mumbler of them all! Whatever the reason, he was a mumbler and I’m a person with hearing loss who needs reasonable articulation from other people. Sloppy speech may be acceptable if you’ve got good hearing, but even the best speechreader, using the most sophisticated hearing aid, can’t understand words grunted through a miniature blowhole.
People in denial about the onset of hearing loss often complain that other people mumble or that nobody knows how to speak properly anymore. Their families try to say, hey, we’re not mumbling—it’s you not being able to hear! So, they get hearing aids and once they’ve adjusted reasonably well, they find out that they hadn’t, in fact, been entirely wrong. Many people do mumble, or simple don’t articulate clearly. Words are only partially pronounced. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit to being guilty of this in my own speech. Wha? Howza family? Whatcha doin’?
Are ongoing relationships between mumblers and people with hearing loss automatically doomed? I mean, what’s the point? The daily grind of communication would be like walking with sharp gravel in your boots, or reading with glasses streaked with mud, or trying to watch a show in a language you don’t understand. You can shake the stones out of your boots, clean your glasses and switch to a your-language program, but improving the mumbling-hearing loss situation requires will and effort from both parties.
I always thought it was difficult to change our speech patterns. For example, I speak very fast although my parents worked hard to get me to slow down and speak clearly. To my mind, I sound normal, but people with hearing loss frequently ask me to slow down so they can “speechread me”. Through the years, my rate of speech has slowed, especially when I’m giving a presentation or a performance, and hearing aids have helped my articulation because I hear myself better.
Juliette Jenner, a communication strategist and voice coach, says in an article on how to obtain ‘sparkling speech’ , that mumbling is a common vocal problem and fortunately is relatively easy to change. It is often born out of a combination of factors such as jaw and facial tension that inhibit speech muscles, low vocal energy and tone, and poor breathing.
Jenner and many other websites offer resources for people who want to articulate better. People with hearing loss also have to hone their skill in expressing their needs. It’s an ongoing process, but good relationships are worth it.
As for me and the guy in the driver’s license office, we’re through. My driver’s license is good for five years.