How to talk to your deaf* friend

by | Jan 11, 2016

Tl;dr read the bold bits.

Friends, have you ever started asking me a question only to be interrupted by “Wassat?” after like 2 words? Like,

“Do you…” “What?”

“I was going to say, do you want some more coffee?”

“Oh. Yes please.”

I notice a sound – I notice that it’s speech – I notice it’s addressed to me – I look around trying to figure where it’s coming from – I see someone looking at me with a question on their face, halfway through asking something that I haven’t heard any of.

People with normal hearing get through most of those steps before the end of the first syllable, but it takes me a couple of words to get there.

Please help me. Get my attention before you start talking. Say “Shannon”. Tap my shoulder. Say “oi.” Make eye contact. Throw something at my head. Just that tiny notification that you are about to start saying something makes a huge difference.

I will drop everything and give you my undivided attention at the slightest provocation. Just help me out a bit.

If I don’t know what the conversation is about, I can’t understand any of the words people are saying. So if a group is talking about the food on the table, and suddenly switches to hockey, I get very confused. Like, I’ll go from understanding maybe 80% of the words that people say, to less than 10% – until I hear the word “hockey” and then everything snaps back into place.

If I’ve spent any amount of time in your company, I’ve probably left the room, come back, and interrupted the conversation with “Ok, what are we talking about?” That’s what’s going on.

I don’t know any other deaf people. They’re bloody impossible to talk to. The irony does not escape me, and I am grateful for those who have patience with me.

I ask for repeats a lot. People respond in one of two ways. The first sort will rephrase what they said, same volume, still mumbling. Thanks, now I have two confusing sentences to decode while the conversation sputters and dies.

They’ll repeat themselves a couple more times, then eventually get annoyed and yell it out. Or better still, say “nevermind”.

My friend’s seven year old daughter does this a lot. She gets a pass, because she’s seven and adorable. If you’re an adult, I will try to educate you, but I won’t put up with it forever. When I ask for a repeat, say the exact same phrase – louder, and more clearly. 

Other people, who are used to it or maybe just more socially advanced, will develop a “Shannon voice” – that’s like an outside voice, in the words of your kindergarten teacher. Sit up straighter, use your lungs and your lips, and speak loudly enough for the whole class to hear. Recognize that you are an important person with interesting things to say, and I want to hear all of it.

Sound that arrives in my brain through my ears is of very low quality. It takes a lot of power to parse it out and get useful information. Sometimes there is a delay. Sometimes it takes a while for me to catch up.

Some things that cause my brain to work even harder:

  • Mumbling.
  • Loud noises in the background – like if someone slams a door while you’re talking, that whole sentence is gone.
  • Any kind of white noise in the background, like a tap running. Your ears tune it out – mine can’t.
  • Low light – it’s hard to read lips.
  • Accents.
  • Women’s voices, which tend to be higher pitched and quieter than men’s. I only recently – like this year – began to learn how many fascinating women I know. I have to seek them out for one on one conversation, because in groups they get drowned out.
  • Children – might as well be hamsters for all I can understand them. Fortunately kids don’t hold it against me, and will try as hard as I do.

Some things that help:

  • Talk louder. DON’T YELL. That distorts the words and makes them harder to understand. Plus it’s scary and upsetting and makes me want to leave. Louder, like you’re giving a presentation in class and the teacher is sitting in the back row.
  • Face me. I read lips.
  • Face me. When you talk to the kitchen sink, all the sound goes straight down the drain. None of it gets to me.
  • Don’t rest your chin on your hand. Don’t stroke your stupid mustache. In fact, shave the mustache, it also gets in my way.
  • Sit nearby. If you’re 3 feet away, I’m struggling. If you’re 6 feet away, I’m helpless.
  • If I put my face 6 inches away from yours and stare directly into your soul and that makes you uncomfortable, talk louder. I’m uncomfortable too.

Thank you for your patience. Thank you for your effort. I will try to repay it by listening well.

** Technically I am hard of hearing. Takes too long to type.