Selective hearing?

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I’m not usually at a loss for words but one comment that often leaves me floundering goes something like this.  “Vera, I know YOU are deaf but you haven’t met my uncle John.  He can hear when he wants to, believe me”.  People, often the loveliest people, say it to me surprisingly often.  Just the other day I was chatting to someone in the village, my hearing gets mentioned and then out it pops…….

I have never, in all my forty years of gradually worsening hearing loss, pretended not to hear something when I did.  Why would I do that?  It’s painful when you constantly misunderstand things, don’t get the joke, don’t hear the instruction or miss the chatter.  I’m so delighted when I DO hear things that the last thing I’d want to do is pretend that I hadn’t.

I don’t believe that all these Uncle Johns, Auntie Janets and countless others whose stories I have been regaled with over the years do it either; so what’s going on?  Why are we so misunderstood?  The problem, I think, is that hearing loss is a disability that is hard to comprehend unless you have experienced it.  It is tricky to imagine, even for the most sympathetic hearing person, partly because they can’t see the obstacles in the way of the person trying to hear.

It must be baffling.  Unlike some other disabilities, obstacles to hearing for a person with hearing loss aren’t usually visible.  People can see (literally) that a flight of stairs is a barrier to someone using a wheelchair, or that an unexpected obstacle on the pavement might be a problem for someone with very poor vision.  They can’t see the effect all manner of things have on the ability of someone with hearing loss to hear.  Examples?  Well, where to stop really.  People not looking at us consistently (or at all).  Too many other people talking.  Dishwasher, washing machine, kettle, spin dryer (insert any other piece of domestic equipment) going in the background.  Road noise in the car.  Muzak in restaurants.  Coffee machines in cafes.  Walking on a gravel path or near a busy road.  Insert your own obstacles here…….

No wonder hearing people get confused by us.  Now we hear them, now we don’t.

Musing about this over the past few days, I’ve had another thought about the Uncle John scenario.  Sometimes we zone out.  We stop listening.  Sometimes hearing loss is SO EXHAUSTING that we just can’t concentrate any more.  The brain gives up.  STOP it says, I need a rest.  Many times I have been with a group of people chatting and there comes a point when I just switch off.  Not because I’m trying to be rude, or because I’m disinterested in what they are saying but because exhaustion has set in.  Off I go into a private reverie, in an attempt to get my hearing breath back.

But here’s the thing.  If, in the middle of all that chatter, somebody says “archaeology” or “black Labradors” I might very well perk up and re-join the conversation, because I’m very interested in archaeology and dogs, and the words somehow get a special priority in my brain.  And that I think is what sometimes leads to the stories about Uncle John’s selective hearing.  Poor John is sat there, exhausted from trying to hear, zoned out, in a dream world, when somebody says “Manchester United are going to sign Ronaldo” and his ears prick up immediately.  Now there’s a conversation worth overcoming your tiredness for.  It’s not that John can “hear when he wants to”, it’s that hearing is SO DAMNED DIFFICULT that you sometimes have to reserve your energies for things you really want to talk about.  You can see why that might be maddening for John’s family but this time the obstacle they can’t see is the obstacle of exhaustion.  Perhaps we should have a little flag we could stick in the air when we are too tired for any but the most crucial conversations.

So here’s the question.  What do I say the next time somebody tells me about their husband and his selective hearing?  (Yes, sometimes it is about their own spouse.  Imagine that……if your own partner thought you were deliberately choosing not to hear them?!?)   The best I can come up with is “Sometimes people think I do that.  I never pretend not to hear when I have, but sometimes I get too exhausted to try.”

Better responses?  Answers on a postcard please, or rather, leave a comment below.


















22 thoughts on “Selective hearing?

  1. I get irritated by people who tell me that I’m “lucky” because I can switch off / take out my hearing aids if things get too loud. I think to myself, hmm “lucky old me”.
    People don’t seem to realise that when you take your hearing aids out you get a sense of “not being there” – or is that just me?

    1. Hello Keith. No, it’s not just you. Or, certainly, it’s me too. I feel absolutely “not me” when I don’t have my hearing aid in (and now, my implant on). Also, in my case, I feel sure that the loudness I’ve experienced with some hearing aids goes far beyond the levels of discomfort people experience when they hear something loud through their (normally hearing) ears. Anyway, I think I deserve a few “advantages” to compensate for all the myriad problems that hearing loss throws up.
      Best wishes. Vera.

  2. So well said Vera and everyday is different. I also have a problem that I sometimes think people have finished spekaing and then attempt chip in with my own contribution to the conversation, only to be told that the other person has not finished speaking! Why do people pause in the middle of a sentence. Maybe schools should teach elecution once again and also how to empathise with people who are hard of hearing as this is only going to get more common as time goes by.

    1. Hello Pat. Yes, I’d forgotten about the “chipping in” problem. That’s always happening to me. I think it’s a suitable break in the conversation and I can say something only to realise that I’m speaking over someone who is already talking or who, as you say, has merely paused midway through what they intended saying. It’s a minefield isn’t it? Hearing people don’t know the half of it. Best wishes.

  3. Vera, I can relate to everything you said and after reading this I thought maybe my wife might finally understand if I let her read it. She said that she has the same problems in group situations struggling to hear when the situation is noisy and sometimes switching off, but she still says that I have selective hearing. How can we win?

    1. Hi Neil. Hope the post helps your wife to understand. Sometimes I think there is SO MUCH people don’t understand about hearing loss that I don’t know where to start in trying to describe it. Sometimes I think they think we can hear fine but everything is a bit quieter! If only it was that simple.
      Best wishes

  4. Oh Vera, you made me laugh with: Now we hear them, now we don’t.
    Yes, you are right, it’s very hard for hearing people to understand how the slightest of background noise can make such a big difference to someone with hearing loss in following a conversation…Damn those kitchen appliances – they are all conversation killers!!1 i especially dislike our oven fan and the kettle!!
    Hope you are well
    Take care
    Carly x

    1. Hello Carly. The problem is that so much of modern life is spent in kitchens and often kitchens are the worst places to hear in.
      Best wishes

  5. How very true Vera.

    I can identify with everything in this blog. I wonder would the same people say to someone who suffers with chronic pain, that they are only pretending that it hurts? Or say to someone who is visually impaired that they only choose when to see?

    How often it is said of us who are hard of hearing that “he doesn’t always wear his hearing aids”?

    Said by people, I must add, who’ve never worn a hearing aid in their lives so don’t understand how it feels, physically, to wear them. The way ear moulds feel, especially on warm days, or the effect of wind noise when it’s blowing a gale.

    The way hearing aids, no matter how finely tuned, pick up all sounds and dump them down our ear canals, as mine do. Or how when I put mine and turn them on I’m bombarded with loud, slightly metallic sound for a minute or so before my brain adjusts to being in “hearing mode”.

    1. Hello Ian. Yes…..”he doesn’t always wear his hearing aids”……I’d forgotten about that one. I think what people truly don’t “get” is that a hearing aid is not a magical solution. It’s become a bit of a cliche in hearing loss circles that a hearing aid is not like a pair of glasses but I think people who can hear really don’t understand that.

  6. Spot on observations Vera. It is a thoughtless, unkind and belittling act for someone to judge someone with genuine problems in this way. And for myself I think it’s appropriate to tell owner of said offensive remark up front that you find the remark offensive. Further to tell them directly that it is upsetting to hear hearing loss difficulties being trivialised in this way. That hearing loss is not a joke but a heartbreaking disability to suffer from. That many make extraordinary efforts to communicate verbally as best they can despite how exhausting that effort can be. Tell them upfront you are shocked, nay horrified to hear them say such a thing and that you hope they don’t go round telling other people the same thing about you.

    The shame is theirs. The embarrassment is theirs. Let them own it, not you.

    1. Hi Mira. The problem with this, I think, is that often I genuinely like the people saying such things and I genuinely don’t think they are trying to be mean. So I try to explain things to them rather than condemn them. It’s a balance, isn’t it, because other times I think we need to be more militant.

  7. So me! Deafness will never be truly understood by even those who are willing to try. If a person can’t walk then they can’t walk. There are however many different ways people are deaf. Meaning what some can hear, others can’t. Where some can manage others struggle. Strategies that work for one don’t help another and as you say strategies that work in one senario don’t work in another situation. How much energy I have that day, whether I’m under the weather, whether it’s a “good or bad ear day” (well, technically bad or worse ear days actually ha ha! I have menieres and fluctuating tinnitus etc) all make a massive difference. How I’d love to be able to enlighten and educate people!

    1. The infinite variations of deafness make things even more confusing, I think, for other people. They get used to what one person with hearing loss can cope with only to find that everyone else is different (and what works for one person one day might not, as you say, work for the same person another day).

  8. Good topic, Vera. I do actually find that the parts of a conversation I miss most often are the bits where people are saying negative things. Maybe people talk faster or in a different tone or something, not really things I pick up when I miss something and get confused. It’s really annoying because when I question what they’ve said they won’t believe I didn’t hear, dismiss me as being immature/not wanting to know. If someone’s got a bone to pick with me and they won’t effectively communicate to me what it is, I can’t really do anything about it, can I? *frustrated sigh*

    As for the question, I don’t think there is a good answer. You bever know what it’s like until you’ve experienced it, as shown by my mother last year who underwent surgery and ended up “temporarily” deaf in one ear (jury’s still out on that one). She told me she never thought my life could have been so awful, while I was busy imagining the delight of one ear that could hear absolutely everything (just imagine the music!! my idea of music now is dots on paper, the vibrations of my clarinet as I try to play softly, just in case I’m not quite in tune with the rest of the orchestra).

    Perspective is everything, it colours all we do, maybe the only real answer is “before you think less of someone, try running a mile in their shoes”.

    1. Hi Mima.
      I love your example of your mother’s reaction to what she can and can’t hear, compared to you imagining how wonderful it would be with one functioning ear.
      I wonder if when people are saying negative things they drop their voices – out of embarrassment at being negative, in the same way people sometimes cover their mouths (aargh) when they say “bad” things?
      Best wishes. Keep your perspective!

    2. I can sympathise with you Mima,
      When I was learning to play the accordion my teacher suggested that I join the orchestra.
      I immediately thought how am I going to manage with the noise of twenty plus accordions at the one time? But I persevered and our group won the British championships several times.
      The funny thing was one day we were practising the final rehearsal for a concert , we played a tune right through and when we had finished the conductor said :-
      “ Neil you played every note perfectly but it was in the wrong key”
      I felt really embarrassed but we had a good laugh at it.

  9. I think you’re spot on with this Vera and – like you – I’d never pretend not to hear anything but yes it’s exhausting and at the end of a long hearing-filled day it’s easy to zone out for a while! Same at parties – I make a massive effort to start with but simply can’t keep it up throughout!

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