When Hearing Aids Meet in the Ketchup Aisle

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?


About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". 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, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.


  1. Always love your articles Gael and especially today’s as I am scheduled for surgery this month for my C.I. While I’m excited about having this done, I am also a bit nervous, but I’ll get over that I’m sure. Looking forward to more of your articles and I’m looking forward to better hearing soon. Then maybe I will be singing too “Do you hear what I hear”

    1. Wonderful, Betty! Good luck with the CI. While you’re recovering you might want to read my book – how’s that for shameless self-promotion!? lol

  2. I don’t say anything to adults but I do say things to kids. I say things like “great green earmolds” or “good sparkles on your hearing aid” and then show them mine. Same as I would comment on someone’s great earrings. Having been a pediatric audiologist for a long time I know kids feel that they are alone and I think it is a relief for them to see someone else with hearing aids or CI’s. I am sad to report that I no longer have purple hearing aids. Although the hearing aids I have come in purple for kids, for a reason not clear to me, they won’t recase mine in purple. Does that seem fair?

  3. My eyes indeed usually spot a hearing aid or CI immediately and my thoughts are “oh, you too …”. Like you, I don’t say anything about it, because I too fear they may have a setback. But, in case I do get into conversation, I tell them that I am also hard of hearing and wear hearing aids and will listen to their story.
    Once, I was in a store, and told the shop assistent that I was hard of hearing, because I didn’t hear what she said. The lady next to me, whom I already spotted with hearing aids, nodded to me in an understanding way and said that she had some troubles too. We got into a short conversation about our hearing loss and she told me she wasn’t very open about it. I encouraged her to open up and we parted with knowing smiles.

    1. I am lucky I still have one ear that works fairly well and a BAHA implant for the other. I don’t wear it as much as I should because I am always afraid of losing it. There are many times when I have had to explain to a cashier or receptionist that I am a little hard of hearing and they will always say they are sorry. My reply is usually along the lines that’s they don’t need to be sorry. I am the perfect man. A woman can tell at me and I won’t get upset about it. That’s usually enough to put them at ease and they will speak a little louder without feeling embarrassed about it. A little humor can go a long way.

  4. I always ask how they like their hearing aid, or comment on how small it is and show them mine. I did approach a man with a CI, who was most gracious and is now a good friend. I try to get in a plug for HLAA every chance I get.

  5. I wear my hair short and have bright covers for my CI; I show it off. I’ve had many people approach me with questions and I’m happy to discuss my experiences. I’ve also been married for 32 years and neither myself or my husband wear wedding rings so not seeing a ring doesn’t mean the person isn’t married

    1. My looking at hands was/is only a small part of what I take in, usually subconsciously, when I watch people. There are no wild skins yet available for my Kanso but looking forward to wearing them!

  6. Approaching strangers with hearing devices has ALWAYS been my modus vivendi. I don’t choose to go up to every one, but if they don’t look like they’re in a hurry or harrassed, I just go up to them and say “excuse me (to get their attention)” and say, I see you have a hearing aid. I have one too and touch my ear. Next I ask them how they like them. It almost always starts a good conversation and I haven’t gotten shot yet. A friend said to me, “You talk to everyone, don’t you.” I told her it was not something I did much before receiving my cochlear implant. That said, it was a chance to hand out business cards for our HLAA chapter.

    1. Wonderful! I wrote this blog to show that it’s OK. We just have to respect the mat reactions might not always meet our intentions.

  7. One day I was in a Safeway in Arizona. A very energetic woman came up to me, pointed to my ear and with great curiosity in her voice she asked me, what was I wearing? What was it called? I smiled and replied, it is called a cochlear implant. Her eyes opened wide and she said “wait here, don’t move!” She ran off down one of the isle. She soon came back with another woman. She quickly pointed to my head again, showing her friend my hardware. Her friend appeared a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. But in a very relaxed manner I began to explain what a cochlear implant was. The woman asked if that would work for her friend? She had been trying to help her with no luck. I explained it would require an evaluation and willingness to participate in a bit of rehabilitation, if her friend qualified. I gave her some names of clinics that handle cochlear implants in the area. Her friend looked at me and sheepishly appoligized. I stated there was no problem at all, I was happy to share. So you never know what might be in whatever isle waiting for you!

  8. I could relate exactly to your thoughts on “hearing aid people”…..sorry to label us but I too find myself zooming in on people`s ears and would indeed like to approach them but as yet I have refrained from doing so. I would love to approach them and sing out…”do you hear what I hear”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.