Ah, summer! The warm weather and light breezes mark my favorite time of the year. I love swimming, and hiking and watching the fireflies blink on and off in the darkness after the sun goes down. It is a time for vacations, and laziness and long evenings on the porch with family and friends.
But at the end of each day as the sun sets and nighttime creeps in, the noise level jumps. Frogs start singing, crickets begin chirping and during certain weeks, the cicadas add their incessant high-pitched buzzing. Sometimes the background noise exceeds 70 decibels!
With typical speech in the 60-65 decibel range, it can be almost impossible for me to hear over the background din.
Background Noise Is Killer for People with Hearing Loss
Each evening as the sound level increases, conversation becomes more challenging. In some loud environments, my family automatically raises their voices to be heard over the background noise. Most people do this naturally which explains why a noisy restaurant only gets more deafening as the night goes on as each new table talks louder to overcome the growing racket.
But with cicadas, my family doesn’t seem to notice the extra noise. They continue to speak in their “my-family-member-has-hearing-loss-normal-voices.” But it is not enough. Perhaps the fact that the cicada sound is high-pitched—where my hearing is strongest—makes it more of an issue for me.
“What?” I begin to ask more frequently. “I can’t hear over the cicadas,” I prompt them. “You need to speak up.” I remind them again and again. They raise their voices for a short time but fall back into old patterns quickly. Sometimes I turn on music hoping the added noise will boost their voice levels. It doesn’t always work.
How to Converse in Loud Environments
Sometimes a setting is optimal for conversation—like a quiet summer night—until something changes. As people with hearing loss, we must be willing to adapt—and to ask other people to adjust too. If a listening environment becomes more difficult, we must take whatever steps are needed to keep the conversation flowing.
Try these ideas.
1. Utilize communication best practices.
Ensure that everyone is following the ground rules for good communication such as speaking one at a time and keeping their face and mouth uncovered and pointed in your direction. Small changes in behavior can create big improvements in comprehension.
2. Brighten the lights.
If residual hearing is compromised, speechreading will be even more important. A well-lit environment makes it easier to see lip movements and facial cues.
3. Change the seating arrangement.
A circular table helps conversation by making everyone’s faces more visible and keeping their voices projected toward the center making them easier to hear. If a circular table is not available, put the people who are most difficult for you to hear across from you to aid with lipreading. You may also benefit from sitting in a corner or with a wall behind you to block out the distraction of noise from behind.
4. Leverage technology.
Use a remote mic to bring voices directly into your ears or a speech-to-text app to help you read what is being said. Or try a different program on your hearing aids—some are designed to block out background noise.
5. Turn on music.
While this may seem counterintuitive, adding more sound sometimes prompts people to instinctively raise their voices, making it a bit easier to hear them.
6. Try noise-cancelling headphones.
This may not work for everyone, but for me, noise-cancelling headphones can help erase a repetitive cicada-like background sound, letting me focus more clearly on the voices I want to hear.
7. Switch venues.
If all else fails, go somewhere else. Move to a quieter space or pick a different restaurant. Communication is the primary goal.
Shari Eberts is a hearing health advocate, writer, and avid Bikram yogi. She is the founder of Living With Hearing Loss, a blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus. She also serves on the Board of Trustees of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with Shari: Blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter.