“In a group conversation, I laugh when others laugh, stop laughing when they do.” - Gael Hannan, The Way I Hear It
I had the pleasure of reading “The Way I Hear It”, a book by Gael Hannan, a writer, actor and public speaker who has severe-to-profound hearing loss. Her book recounts the journey of living with hearing loss and how to be more optimistic about it.
In one of her stories, she says the quote above and it stuck with me.
I do that ALL the time. It’s hard for me to follow group conversations, especially if it ends up being more than three people (including myself), and even more so if it’s in a loud environment, like a restaurant or a bar. In those louder environments, I depend on lip reading, so my head is usually whipping back and forth – like trying to follow a ping pong ball bouncing from one person to the next.
Sometimes, I can predict who will respond next, and flick my eyes there, but often, the direction of the conversation is unpredictable, and I end up missing half of what the next person says. If this happens enough times, it’s easy to lose track of the topic entirely. It’s been that way for as long as I remember and I’ve long since accepted it.
When I was younger, I didn’t want to deal with asking people to constantly repeat themselves, or drawing more attention to my hearing loss so I just started faking a laugh when other people laugh, (and stopping when they do), until I catch up and I’m finally able to join the conversation.
Turns out, there is a word for what I do – it’s called ‘bluffing’ – where those with hearing loss pretend to “understand and pretend to give the appearance of following the conversation, when we are not” (Gael Hannan, The Way I Hear It).
This habit of bluffing has been ingrained into me at a very early age. It has gotten to the point where bluffing has almost become automatic to me. I never really noticed when I did it, until I met my boyfriend (let’s call him D).
He is very observant and is very good at knowing when I bluff. He started to pick up on when I would fake laugh at someone – sometimes he’ll lean over and ask me if I caught what they were saying, or quickly relay what I had missed. He encourages me to ask others to repeat what they said, but sometimes I feel like it’s not worth stalling the conversation for.
A great example of my bluffing was when D and I were sitting in his backyard with two other friends one summer evening. As the night stretched on, the sky got darker, and it became harder for me to read lips. By that point, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, staring at each person with intensity (it probably looked a bit creepy but it’s okay, it was dark).
We ended up having a bonfire. The light from the flames helped because I could see D’s face – but our two friends’ faces jumped in and out of the shadows because of where they were sitting, and the way the flames were flickering.
I caught a lot of what D was saying, but I only caught tidbits of what our other friends were saying. Soon enough, I was completely lost in the conversation.
Without even realizing it, I laughed when they laughed and I stopped when they did. I even made sounds of agreement every once in a while. Halfway through, D looked at me with that same face he does whenever he catches me in a lie, and that’s when I noticed I was bluffing.
Ever since it’s been brought to my attention, it drives me nuts that I do it so much. As someone who is trying to improve the way I communicate with others about my hearing loss, this is considered a step back.
Why do I bluff so much?
Bluffing has become a comfortable habit because it’s something that I did since I was a child. It’s easier to pretend that you know what’s going on rather than having to constantly ask people to repeat themselves. Doing that not only frustrates the other person, but it frustrates me, because in those moments, I’m hyper aware of the limitations of my hearing loss.
Becoming aware of how often I bluff made me realize that this is something that I need to actively work on.
I don’t know if it will be something that I’ll be able to stop entirely, but I want to try and keep the amount of times I do it to a minimum. While it makes me grit my teeth to repeatedly say, “sorry, I didn’t catch that, can you say it again?”, it’s better than bluffing all the time – because then I’m not acknowledging my own needs by addressing whatever communication barrier there is at the time that is making me miss out on the conversation.