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.
Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for Hearing Health & Technology Matters, 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.