Dad: “Matt, you go put some shoes on those feet right now. It’s freezing out here!”
Matt: “That’s what I’m doing, Papa. I’m going out to the car to get my shoes.”
Dad: “I don’t care what you’re doing, Matt. Go get some shoes on your feet now!”
Matt: Exasperation as he runs off to the car.
This story has kept the whole family chuckling at the dinner table many times.
When I was about thirty, I began noticing that I favored my left ear over my right ear when talking on the phone. The hearing loss progressed rapidly, and soon, I was having trouble hearing higher frequencies (read: women’s voices, i.e. my wife’s, and the voices of my children—how convenient!). Fortunately, my condition was operable, and in my mid-forties, my hearing was restored to 90%—I can hear almost everything again—a wonderful, priceless gift. But I had experienced hearing loss long enough to remember the incredible frustration of missing out on so much.
Here are some of the setbacks faced by those who have hearing loss:
- We can’t filter out background noise. The washing machine, running water, etc. always “drowns out” what someone is saying (pun intended).
- We miss the words spoken in intonation dips, which can radically alter our understanding and thereby confuse us. Our brains therefore work overtime to figure out what was said, which makes verbal communication mentally and emotionally exhausting.
- We have to ask for others to repeat what they’ve said, and most often, they don’t change their volume, speed, or diction, so we’re still clueless the second time around—or third.
- If we say “What?” more than once or twice, people can get offended because they think we’re not paying attention to them. Conversations can get testy.
- Hearing loss in one ear means the loss of ability to zero in on the source of a sound. When someone speaks to us, we may hear the speaker, but don’t know where to turn. So we’re turning in circles, trying to identify who spoke…i.e. we look stupid, inept, feeble.
If someone is blind, mute, disabled—any other infirmity—others will be compassionate and helpful. Everyone has walked through a dark room and can imagine blindness. Everyone can look at someone with a physical handicap and imagine what life would be like without use of a limb. But with hearing loss, others can’t “see” it. One’s hearing never gets shut off—people with normal hearing haven’t ever experienced sound deprivation. So, they get irritated with us, or else they don’t believe us when we don’t “remember” what they said. Hearing loss is a no-win disability.
How do we handle it? We smile a lot, nod our heads confidently, laugh at jokes we couldn’t catch, or our minds wander to other places simply because we can’t follow what’s being said. And we stumble through those embarrassing moments when a question puts our lack of understanding to the test.
Here’s the reality: Hearing loss tasks our brains so much that we often stop listening. You may think, “So THAT’S what’s been happening with my spouse / child / friend / co-worker / employee / boss!” No, you can’t blame everything on hearing loss. But we all have moments when we don’t listen.
Yesterday, the power was out at my son’s school, and he was overjoyed to learn that he had a spontaneous holiday. As a good father, I took it upon myself to dampen some of that celebration by thinking of a couple of chores around the house. So I sent him off in our Ford Ranger to get replacement bulbs for the left headlight. A few months back, my wife had gone to a store in our town—next to Starbucks on the main drag—and had the headlight bulbs replaced in our Honda Odyssey.
Me: “Son, the store is called Lamps Plus, and it’s right next to Starbucks, across the street from the Olive Garden restaurant.”
Ten minutes later, my son calls me.
Son: “Dad, they don’t have headlight replacement bulbs here.”
Me: “Sure they do.”
Son: “No, they don’t.”
Me: “How do you know?”
Son: “Daaaaaad, I looked it up on the store’s computer,” (spoken in a “Please be reasonable” tone).
Me: “Have you asked anyone in the store?”
Me: “Just ask,” I instructed with as little irritation in my voice as I could manage.
Son: “Okay,” he answers with a dread-filled sigh.
A couple minutes later, he called again and informed me that they didn’t have the bulbs. Then it was my turn to sigh. I told him to forget about it and come home. In the meantime, I texted (SMSed) my wife, asking her the name of the store where she had bought the bulbs. An hour later, she texted back, “Batteries Plus Bulbs.”
That’s when realization struck. “Lamps Plus” is a retail store for furniture, lamps, and accessories that’s located across the street (a couple blocks down) from “Batteries Plus Bulbs.” I had put my son through a ridiculous exchange with a salesman at “Lamps Plus.” The people in the store must have been chuckling after he left.
Sales Rep #1: “Um, do you sell car headlight bulbs here?” he says in an idiotic voice to parody the conversation.
Sales Rep #2: “Uh, no, but we sell chicken feet and bubble gum,” his colleague answers in the same stupid tone, grinning. And the laughter goes on.
It sure did when our family gathered at the dinner table later that evening. My wife couldn’t stop laughing. I think I goofed even bigger than my Dad did with Matt last year. In fact, I’m laughing so hard at myself as I’m writing this that I’m wiping away the tears.
“Batteries Plus Bulbs” is right next to Starbucks, across the street from Olive Garden. “Lamps Plus” isn’t too far from the Olive Garden restaurant, across the street from Starbucks. How was I to know my son was calling from a furniture store? How was he to know I had misspoken and had meant “Batteries Plus Bulbs?” The only constant was the “Plus.”
I realize that miscommunications are unavoidable, but through this hilarious exchange, I’ve resolved to not only hear, but to listen and ask better questions. I sure don’t want others to pay the price for my blunders…if I can help it.