What goes through your mind when you notice that shiny arc of silver behind the ear of someone you don’t know?
If you’re a hearing person, you might think, “OK, that person is hard of hearing” and that’s the end of it. Especially if you’re standing behind him or her in the grocery checkout, or you’re both pushing shopping carts in the aisle – there’s no need for any further action and your brain moves on.
If, however, there’s some reason to talk with the hearing aid user – you might be the grocery cashier, or the person’s cart is blocking your way to get at the ketchup – that hearing aid might influence what you say and how you say it. You’ll be prepared for a ‘pardon me’, in which case you’ll repeat yourself, perhaps just a little louder. (What you won’t say, if they mention their hearing loss, is ‘sorry’. You’ll be tempted to say it, but don’t. There’s no need. It’s just one of those air-filler phrases, because you’ve done nothing to be sorry for, and people with hearing loss don’t want you to apologize. You’re welcome.)
But if you also have hearing loss, you’ll notice a stranger’s hearing aid almost immediately – your eye goes directly to it. “Here I am!” it calls. Because whether you realize it or not, you’re trained to look at ears. Ears and hearing (or lack of it) and technology such as hearing aids and cochlear implant sound processors have become very interesting, important things in your life.
In my single days, when any random guy entered my line of sight, my eyes would slide to his ring finger on a quick intelligence-gathering mission; why waste precious flirting time with someone who is spoken for? Years later, I still look at people’s ring fingers, simply because I like people-watching, but it’s no longer the first thing I look at. These days, my first glance aims higher, scanning ears and heads for hearing technology, to see who might be one of “my people”.
But if I do see a hearing aid, I usually say nothing to its owner – partly because I haven’t yet come up with any good opening lines.
“You too, huh?”
“So, I see you have a Thing. How’s that working out for you?”
“Hey, you’ve got a cochlear implant! Me, too! Wanna get a coffee?”
It’s also none of my business. Any of these approaches could set a stranger back ten years if they are not yet in a ‘good place’ about their hearing loss. Just when they had almost convinced themselves that the thing in their ears or on the side of their head is not very noticeable, a hearing loss evangelist accosts them in the bakery section.
So, I often say nothing—although if I can catch their eye, I’ll raise my chin in recognition and then move on, leaving the stranger to wonder why I did this—should they know me from somewhere? If they see my own hearing aid that I’m bobble-heading in their direction, the penny may drop. But even so, I don’t expect them to smile appreciatively in recognition; not everyone wants to be in the hearing loss club, especially if membership comes with a bumper sticker, T-shirt and a secret sign that you’re expected to share with anyone sporting a hearing aid or sound processor.
If I do get an opening to discuss hearing loss and technology with strangers, I take it. Always. Even if it means listening to the person complain about the price of hearing aids, or how they didn’t really need it but their wife made them get it, the connection is made and they’ll know that, for at least one other person, wearing a hearing aid and/or sound processor is not only “ok”, it makes life better.
The next time you’re shopping for condiments, and you see that little arc behind an ear, what are you going to say or do?