According to many accounts, online meetings are easier for people with hearing loss because there’s less stress involved.
In an article on the BBC website, Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, said, “Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat. Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy.”
But for people with less than perfect hearing, does a video call require more focus than a face-to-face chat?
Let’s compare the experiences of someone with hearing loss attending a face-to-face vs an online meeting. How do they compare in terms of stress and energy levels?
In order to attend a meeting in person, you have to travel to the meeting. As someone with hearing loss, my first worry is about waking up on time to get there. If I’m traveling from home, I have my sunrise alarm and my husband to help me get up on time. But if I’m staying in a hotel, I have to rely on myself and my travel alarm (which shakes to wake me up). Most times I’ve stayed in a hotel prior to a meeting, I’ve not slept well. I keep waking up to make sure I haven’t missed the alarm.
In order to travel to a meeting, I may have to catch a train. If that’s the case, I will be stressed listening for platform announcements. I have to stay alert at all times so I don’t miss anything.
Once on the train, I have to be alert about being asked for my ticket and reaching my stop. Sometimes the station name isn’t visible until the train has come to a halt. Then I have to dash off the train quickly. So I sit clutching my belongings, feeling like a coiled spring, ready to move quickly when necessary.
If I have to catch a bus to somewhere new, that’s even more stressful. There may be no visual clues to show me that I’ve arrived at my stop. So I ask the driver to let me know when it’s my stop. I also have to explain that I’m deaf and that they need to wave to let me know when to get off. I then worry that the driver will forget all about my request and I’ll miss my stop altogether.
If I have to walk to a meeting and I don’t know the way, I worry about having to ask someone for directions. What if I mishear them and go the wrong way? Thank goodness for mapping apps!
So, if you’re deaf, you’ve potentially faced many stressful situations before you even enter the meeting room. And how has that affected your energy level?
“If you’re deaf, you’ve potentially faced many stressful situations before you even enter the meeting room.”
Read more: Deaf travel tips for plane, train and automobile
Once in the meeting room, someone with hearing loss will need to work out the best place to sit. If there is light coming in from windows on just one side of the room, I’ll sit with my back to the windows. If I were to sit facing the windows, the faces of the people in front of the windows would be shadowed. That means I would struggle to lipread them.
Some people with hearing loss may have better hearing in one ear. They will try and position themselves so that most people in the meeting are on their better side.
And then we need to take into account possible background noise. Is there a fan or air conditioning unit that will create background noise which will be amplified by our hearing devices? On warm days, we worry about the possibility of someone asking to open a window, which may lead to the intrusion of traffic noise.
If there are refreshments at the meeting, these too are fraught with issues for those of us with hearing devices. Is there anything worse than the amplified sound of cups on saucers when you’re trying to follow what’s being said? I have been known to hide all the saucers to avoid the constant clank of cup on saucer throughout meetings.
And, eating/drinking and lipreading do not mix! We can’t read someone’s lips while they’re holding a cup in front of their face!
Read more: The Challenges of Hearing Loss at Work: Conquering the Conference Room
When the meeting starts, you’ll be able to spot the people with hearing difficulties because we look like meerkats, constantly on alert as to where the next sound will come from. In order for me to lipread you, I need to be able to see you. That means I need to hone in on your face within a second or two of you starting to speak. I do love a meeting where people raise their hands to request to speak and the chair gives them permission. If people start speaking over one another, then we will often admit defeat and silently withdraw from the meeting. It may all just get to be too much.
The other key stressor is having someone ask a direct question in a meeting. This is worse if they were not already speaking, as we may not have been looking at them. Once we’ve realized it’s us they’re talking to, we then need to try and work out what they were asking.
Besides lipreading, we’re also constantly looking for non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language.
If there is a break in the meeting, this should mean a chance for us to stop and rest. Lipreading and following conversation in a large meeting can be extremely tiring. Frequent breaks are needed. However, what usually happens is chit chat. Someone will want to ask you about your weekend, or holiday, or whatever – so there is no respite.
In their article, “5 reasons why Zoom meetings are so exhausting,” Elizabeth Sander and Oliver Bauman of Bond University have a suggestion:
“In person, we often meet people on the way to a meeting to catch up on issues or discuss our views before going in. We get coffee, and the simple act of relocating to a different room is energizing.”
But, as explained above, for those of us with hearing issues, the not-so-simple act of relocating to a different room can be fraught with stress and worry. Sander and Bauman do acknowledge that:
“On the upside, social anxiety is positively correlated with feelings of comfort online. So, for people who dread physical meetings, meeting online might be a welcome respite.”
How does this compare to a video conference call?
Read more: A guide to group video calling apps for hearing loss
Well, getting there is easy. All we need to do is sit in our chair. There is no stress.
There’s only one place to sit. No stress there either!
It’s our room, so we are in total control of any potential background noise. We can take all necessary steps to eliminate background noise. And we don’t have to worry about potential interruptions. Another stressor removed.
How we arrange our screen is up to us. We are in control. There is no stress.
Most video conferencing software have a setting where the person speaking is highlighted. Some even maximize the view of the speaker so they’re the only one visible. No more meerkats! We don’t need to seek out who’s speaking. The software does that for us.
It’s the protocol in most meetings for people who aren’t speaking to mute their microphones. So if Jenny is having a cup of tea and John is crunching an apple, we don’t have to hear them. Stress removed!
Some video conferencing software provides automatic speech-to-text captions. While by no means perfect, they do take away a lot of guesswork about what’s being said. They also let you see your name, so you know when you’re being asked a question.
The online chat feature is a great tool when needing clarification of a word or phrase without the need to interrupt the speaker.
As for breaks, there’s no one physically with you when you step away from the computer to grab a coffee. You can truly relax for those precious few moments.
Read more: Accessible technology for people with hearing loss
According to Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, people find video calls draining because, “… they force us to focus more intently on conversations in order to absorb information.”
But people with hearing loss always have to “focus intently on conversations in order to absorb information.” For us, it’s a given. For us, face-to-face conversations are draining.
Fosslien and West Duffy say that “‘Zoom fatigue’ stems from how we process information over video. On a video call the only way to show we’re paying attention is to look at the camera. But, in real life, how often do you stand within three feet of a colleague and stare at their face? Probably never. This is because having to engage in a ‘constant gaze’ makes us uncomfortable — and tired. In person, we are able to use our peripheral vision to glance out the window or look at others in the room.”
However, those of us who lipread do stare at people’s faces with a “constant” gaze. Yes, it makes us tired too.
We’re used to not being able to “use our peripheral vision to glance out the window or look at others in the room.” For us, focusing on what’s being said is paramount.
So, it seems that lipreading – and all those years of tortuous meetings – have stood us in good stead for a year of video conferencing. Apparently, we’ve been in training. And that’s perhaps why many of us aren’t experiencing a new, greater level of fatigue by using video calls. If anything, in many ways, they’ve made our lives easier.