Eating whilst deaf

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I probably wouldn’t be big on eating out even if my hearing was good (I love to cook) but meals out when you can’t hear certainly have their challenges.

Problem one – Busy, noisy pubs, restaurants and cafes with lots of hard surfaces for the sound to bounce off (tiled floors, tables without table cloths, windows without curtains).  It’s hard to believe the difference that soft furnishings make to speech comprehension if you have hearing loss, but it’s true.  They absorb a lot of the clatter and make speech much easier to understand.  Open plan restaurant kitchens are a particular disaster – all that rattling of pots and pans and the shriek of the coffee machines.  I’m picturing Pizza Express as I write this.  I like Pizza Express, but the acoustics can be terrible. 

Problem two – Waiters and waitresses who try to tell you things.  Horrors.  I like to have a menu in front of me.  If there are specials I like them to be written on a blackboard in a visible position.  I find it almost impossible to follow a waiter rattling through the specials for the day at the speed of light, using that strange voice that people adopt when they are repeating something learnt off by heart.  My default option in this scenario is not to even try to follow what’s being said.  Just choose something off the main menu.  But that has its pitfalls too, because sometimes the recitation includes information on what is “off”.  Years ago, eating out with Nigel’s family when his mum was alive, the waiter did his usual specials-board-gabble and I ignored it.  So apparently did his mum, who also had hearing loss.  So neither of us realised that the duck was off the menu that day.  There seemed to be some kerfuffle going on when mum’s order was being taken, but I couldn’t follow it and I didn’t ask for a translation.  (Believe me, if I asked for a translation every time I missed something you would be driven mad).  Then MY order was taken and of course I asked for the duck (as had mum).  Heartlessly, the rest of the family collapsed in helpless laughter.  It must indeed have been funny.  The waiter said the duck is off then the elderly woman asks for it. That confusion sorted, a younger woman asks for the b***** duck AGAIN.  What is wrong with these people???  THE DUCK IS OFF.

So now I get Nigel to tell me if something isn’t available.  What I SHOULD do is persuade the waiter to speak in a way that I can understand, but there are only so many hearing challenges I feel up for on any given day.  Some you have to give up on.

Problem three – Dim Lighting.  Dimly lit restaurants or pubs render lip reading much harder.  Very atmospheric and romantic for people who can hear but an exhausting strain if you can’t.  Candles are a big problem, because the flickering makes it worse.

Problem four – Very wide tables.  Before I retired I would sometimes have to attend quite formal meals associated with work, where a big group of people sat round massive tables.  It was hopeless, even though my hearing was much better then than it is now.  The only strategy was to trap people on either side of me into long, deep conversations in order to stay well clear of comments thrown across the table from miles away.

So what to do?  My tips would be……

  • If you can, choose somewhere that is quiet and well-lit.
  • Avoid peak times. Fewer other people eating = less noise from other people chatting.  (Chatting?  How dare they!?)
  • Be assertive about choosing where you sit. Be assertive with the staff – if there are different tables available try to choose one in a quieter place (or ask for that if booking ahead).  Be cheerily assertive with your companions (they won’t mind) – I find it best to sit with my back to the direction that most of the noise will be coming from unless that would involve sitting facing a window.  (Sitting looking at a window puts the faces of the people in front of you into relative darkness, affecting lip reading).
  • I like to sit at 90 degrees to one other eating partner, rather than opposite them. It’s not always possible but worth a thought.
  • Think about technology. My Roger Pen helps a lot if I am with just one other companion, although I don’t find it helps with more than one.  Some people find that the directional setting on their hearing aids is very useful.
  • Get someone to alert you to things that are off the menu…….

Re-reading the above makes it sound as if eating out whilst deaf is well-nigh impossible but in fact it’s perfectly possible to have a very good time.  Nigel and I have recently had two close friends from the USA visiting for a fortnight.  The first week we went to the Welsh borders and found an excellent local pub.  It was modern, bright and welcoming.  The tables weren’t too wide.  The light was excellent.  It was very quiet.  The staff were lovely and the food was great.  What more could you want?  We were so delighted we went three times.  (It was Foyle’s in Glasbury, if you are near that part of the world).

Then when we got back here we twice went to our “local”.  Early on weekday evenings it is relatively quiet.  They have a particularly quiet back room.  The food is good.  The specials are on the wall.  There is carpet on the floor.  There’s no background music.  I can relax and listen and talk and have a good time, just like everyone else.  (It is the Tempest at Elsack, if you are anywhere near Skipton).

Moving on from eating out, eating in any situation presents hearing challenges, especially if people try to talk to you through a mouthful of food.  Of course, you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.  We all had that drummed into us in childhood, but, chatting to one’s dearest friends and beloveds, most of us probably do, occasionally.  Except please don’t do it with me.  It makes your lip shapes all wrong.

Furthermore, what I’M eating makes a difference too.  Chewing something soft is fine, I can do that and listen at the same time, but if I’m eating an apple, or a piece of toast, or a radish, or a biscuit the CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH going on in my mouth means that I can’t hear the other person.  The crunch drowns out the speech.  So please don’t mind if I eat slowly, or stop with a half-eaten mouthful of food and peer at you with intense concentration.  (Lovely, huh?).

PS  Action on Hearing Loss are running a very good campaign at the moment.  Called Speak Easy the intention is to draw the attention of café and restaurant owners to simple things they can do to make it easier for people with hearing loss to eat there – indeed, to make it easier for anyone who likes a bit of peace and quiet whilst they eat.  They are looking for people to “test” establishments in their area and provide helpful feedback to the owners.  If you feel like taking part (sounds to me like a good opportunity to drag your friends out for a coffee and cake) you can read more about it here.




10 thoughts on “Eating whilst deaf

  1. Hi Vera

    Couldn’t agree more.

    We have just returned from holiday (by the way I’ll mail you on Monday evening as I’m going to AGH to return loaned aids,. I’ll ask them about hearing tests as we discussed previously).

    Our hotel in Spain was lovely. Very modern, but being “very modern” meant the public areas such as bars, lounges and restaurants had large, bare walls, hard floors etc so sound just bounced around, echoing a lot.

    This all meant of course that I heard everything three or four times, each time overlaying the previous, so conversations were impossible.

    Best wishes


    1. So frustrating. Indeed, more than frustrating since you are trying to have a good time on holiday. Hope you still managed to have a good time. Take care.

  2. Hello Vera, As Joy mentioned, this is a very accurate portrayal of eating outside the home. Like you I love Pizza Express but would not dare to go there with a group of people, it is hard enough with just my husband. Unfortunately most eating places are all hard surfaces and those that have recently been refurbished rip up carpet and matting for hard floors. As much as I support Action on Hearing Loss recent campaign there is not much a venue can do to change their design once in place. There is just one pub close to where I live that has soft furnishings and recently they removed their carpets for a hard floor. Life is so exhausting at the best of times and going out for a meal used to be very relaxing, but unfortunately not any more.

    1. Hi Patricia. You’re right that venues aren’t going to put back all their carpets. Not when hard surfaces are so trendy! But some places have a quiet corner/area as in my response to Jennifer (below). Perhaps even bringing that to the attention of venues will help? I also think that venues read their reviews on Trip Advisor so saying “lovely food, what a pity I won’t be going again as the noise ruined all conversation” might help too. You never know.
      Best wishes

      1. I have read reviews that have commented on noise, I left one myself not so long ago and was advised to book a table in a quiet area which we had already done! I think it is a matter of maybe choosing a better time at some venues, but I have been known to nearly fall asleep over my meal if it was a 9 pm slot

  3. Hi Vera

    Thank you so much for writing about something that is surely relevant to all of us out there with different degrees of hearing loss. I admit that I rely on my partner to tell me if there is anything I ought to know about the menu, etc. but it can be frustrating that I have to do this. As you also say, it is difficult to find restaurants that don’t have a lot of background noise, so I have taken note of the ones you mention!

    I have recently, on two occasions, met friends in Saltaire for lunch and struggled HUGELY to have a decent conversation because the venues were so noisy. Very disappointing!

    Meals out with my partner and me are infinitely easier than those where there is a group of friends or family. I now give myself a pep talk before such events and try to be positive and not mind when I can’t follow the conversation or laugh at the story just being told. Once the food arrives it is easier, but I am sometimes tempted to take a book along with me or do stuff on my phone, but have been brought up to be polite!!

    It would be great if restaurants had ‘quiet’ areas for those of us who struggle, and hopefully the campaign will make a difference.

    Keep up the good work by writing your blog – it feels supportive.

    Best wishes

    1. Thank you Jennifer. I have lunch with friends in Saltaire from time to time and agree it can be a challenge.
      Salts Diner is a nightmare if you sit in the main area. The racket from the kitchen and all the other tables wrecks any chance of a nice lunch out. But there is a much quieter area off to the side (directly opposite the kitchen area). Nigel and I went there with our American friends last week. The main area was very busy (a veritable wall of sound) but there was almost nobody in the side area and we had a lovely time.
      The Terrace on the main road does nice food but, again, I find the main area disastrously noisy. However, upstairs is much quieter. Indeed, my friend and I are often the only people up there.
      I sympathise completely with your saying about the need to give yourself a pep talk if a larger gathering is unavoidable. Me too. Sad isn’t it, when other people are having such a good time. I find the only thing that helps is to seek out people one by one and to try to engage just with them, if necessary moving about the table to do it.
      Best wishes and thanks for your lovely comments.

  4. Ha ha Vera. Very accurately portrayed once again! It’s a situation where you should NOT do what I do sometimes and pretend I have heard and smile enthusiastically, only to receive something I never wanted at all. Am coming to near Skipton in September so may give your recommendation a go!

    1. Hello Joy. It’s often a big mistake to bluff or “not bother”, but how to strike the right balance???? Wish I knew the answer. I “let things go” all the time, out of sheer exhaustion with it all. PS Let me know if you have time for a quick meet-up in September, since you will be so near. Vera.

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