Everybody asks for things to be repeated. Whether you can hear people whispering in a noisy restaurant or have trouble understanding even your own mom on the phone, everyone needs to say pardon me on occasion.
Maybe a person is talking with a mouth full of food, munching words beyond recognition. More than one person is speaking at once, and your ears can’t keep straight who’s saying what. Words don’t seem to match the speaker’s facial expression—sad words but happy eyes, for example—and you don’t want to give the wrong response. In these situations, even ‘hearing’ people ask for repeats or clarification.
But for the person with hearing loss who needs darn near perfect listening conditions, these are only a few of the reasons our days are punctuated with Hey? What was that? Pardon me?
Having to ask the question is like a chronic toothache, but dealing with the responses can be jolting, even for the seasoned person with hearing loss.
Ask for a repeat once—and it’s given graciously.
Ask twice—and it’s repeated with concern.
Ask three times—and you get one of three responses:
A. Impatience, a frown and maybe a little eyeball rolling
B. “What, are you deaf or something?”
C. “Never mind, it’s not important.”
By the time you’ve asked a third time, your palms might be sweaty or you’re convinced the person is deliberately not communicating well, simply to annoy you. People with hearing loss don’t always operate at the top of their game—something to do with not being perfect people—but this third request is the absolute last chance and ultimate necessary time to say, “Hey, this isn’t working for me. Could you speak up/face me/swallow your food?” If we can’t say that, we’re likely to just start doing the bluff nod-and-smile. Or we go whole hog and not only leave the conversation, but town—boarding a bus in search of a new life in a new place where people speak more clearly.
If someone gives the B answer, you could reply calmly with the intention of making them sweat. “Yes. I am. Did I not mention that before? How silly of me. And not totally deaf, just enough hearing loss to make your limp-lip movements tough to understand.” Of course, if we’re not good at sarcasm, we could try a little outrage: “Well, there’s no need to broadcast it!” Or simply start crying and leave for the bus station.
But if the person has the gall to deliver response C, don’t you dare consider skipping town. Do not leave the room or the conversation because there is only one answer – but you get to choose your tone of voice.
“Please. Do not say that to me. If you made the comment once, it was worth repeating. Even if you realized your remark was puny, mindless and not worth being allowed to live, let me make that decision.”
Say this any way you want. With a sweet face or a thundercloud, with a catch in your throat or a quiver on your lip. And it depends on who you’re talking to. We’re generally more polite with strangers and are, unfortunately, less patient with friends and family who should know better. I mean, really, how often do we have to explain this stuff?
And what our family and friends don’t realize is that we get as bored asking for repeats, as hearing people do giving them. Do they think we like having to slow down the conversation, or putting it completely into reverse? Do they think we enjoy watching their eye-rolling and sighs while we wait for them to repeat? And do they not understand that we have to fight our own twirling eyeballs when, after we ask them what they said, they can’t remember? Now we’re talking real pain!
Saying pardon me is built in to the hearing loss life, and the better we handle it, the less pain we feel. It starts with not putting all the blame on other people for conversations gone wrong. We can improve the physical listening environment and can clarify our needs with grace and confidence. (Oh, c’mon, we can at least try.)
Before you get on that bus, it might help to know that, accents aside, people speak the same way everywhere. It starts when bus driver says something to you while looking at his watch. You sigh. “Sorry, what was that that?”