People with Hearing Loss Have a Secret

I’ve got a secret and if you have any degree of hearing loss, you’re keeping a secret too. 

We don’t understand what people are saying, even though we pretend to.

Yes, that’s the secret. We fake comprehension. We try to pass as people who understand you as you speak, looking like we’re soaking up every word. We don’t do this all the time, mind you, and that’s the other part of the secret. We do it when you, the person we’re talking to, least expects it, when the conversation seems to be going really well. The reality is you’re doing a monologue and we’re nodding and smiling along with you. 

Bluffing, faking, and passing are all words that describe a habit of at least 99% of people with hearing loss.

I’d say 100% of us bluff, but maybe that rare beast is out there somewhere: the person who doesn’t bluff.  And since I’ve never met anybody who did not bluff, I’m going to suggest that 100% of people with hearing loss bluff at least some of the time. 

We pretend we understand what’s being said – we nod, smile, say uh-huh and make a thousand little motions that assure you we’re with you all the way. But, in fact, if we were challenged, we could not repeat back what you said. Some of us bluff occasionally but for others it’s a way of life. We bluff in our conversations with friends and family. We bluff when talking to strangers. At work, we bluff whenever we can. 

Our less-than-honest conversation style can get us into trouble. It can end relationships. I was dating a nice fellow and when he asked me a question –apparently an important one – I bluffed an answer and it was game over for me and the nice fellow. Our bluffing can cause people think that we’re a little odd. We end up with unwanted food on our restaurant plate and inexperienced bluffers always laugh at the wrong moment. 


So why do we bluff? 


It’s not that we’re not interested in what’s being said (although we might be). It takes a lot of work for people with hearing loss to hear and understand, and the following situations are breeding grounds for bluffing: poor listening environments, more than two people in a conversation, the speaker’s face not in clear view, and lack of technical access or awareness of communication needs. 

So why don’t we just speak up and fix the problem? Why do we just keep on bluffing, when the situation could be remedied? 

For people with typical hearing, because the act of hearing is natural for them and they only need to focus on the content of what’s being discussed. But for people like me, it takes effort just to hear, to keep up, to understand at the same rate as hearing people.

The reasons for bluffing are individual and complex, impacted by personality, type and degree of hearing loss, and understanding and acceptance of the loss. But the reasons are surprisingly similar from person to person, such as:

  • Hide the fact or severity of hearing loss
  • Desire not to appear inadequate or slow
  • Don’t want to annoy or interrupt others
  • It’s easier, a habit
  • Tired of asking for repetition
  • Exhausted by trying to keep up
  • Conscious choice to ‘sit this one out’
  • Lack of assertiveness and communication skills

Bluffing can be a hard habit to break. We must learn how to improve the conversation by expressing our needs or changing the environment.

It takes practice but the results are worth it: more honest, inclusive discussions, and better relationships.  Ask your audiologist for help or reach out to a local hearing loss support group.


A previous version of this article originally appeared at, published on September 3, 2019

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for, 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. I agree that bluffing is a problem and we need to be more open and direct about our needs But.. another situation that leads to bluffing.. we rely on key words and sentence structure to secure meaning so we know we are missing something but hope it will be clear in the next moment. Sometimes this leaves us way behind, we weren’t faking were working very hard. We are Infact the best listeners in terms of attention and effort

  2. Very interesting article, Gael. I agree with you. One point I’ll make if ok with you and that is, I’ve always struggled with comprehending what was being said. Still do. As you know i have a CI and hearing aid yet I become emotionally exhausted trying to grasp whats being said. People talk to me and I stare at them trying to take in, comprehend what they said. Other times it smooth sailing. Pronunciation and distance as well as even flow of speech using assistive devices are all good and dandy but I still struggle to hear even in relatively quiet environments. I share this with you because I’m embarrassed many times at not being able to carry on a good conversation. Many of my h of h companions say they are hearing well with all their equipment and I feel that there is something wrong with me when I have the same equipment but still struggle. I’ve been wanting to say this for some years but have been too ashamed to do so.
    But maybe, just maybe there are some others who are having the same issues as I am. I’m thankful for what little hearing and understanding I have and appreciate what help I receive from modern technology.

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