For us hard of hearing folks, conversing with people at a party is hard work. Like, really…hard…work. On top of the constant banter, you’ve got loud laughter, music being pumped in, and perhaps a blender is blaring. Who’s making margaritas? I need one.
While those closest to me know how to navigate my hearing issues, others, such as periphery friends or people I might be meeting at a party for the first time, don’t immediately know that I’m hard of hearing. They can’t see the hearing aids and I usually don’t bother explaining to them my situation. That’s a one-way ticket to Blunderville. If you’re reading this and you’re a “good” of hearing person, this is a sneak peek inside the ears of a hard of hearing person trying to get by at a party. If you’re reading this and you’re a hard of hearing or deaf person, you’ll surely recognize some of the shenanigans I put myself through when navigating a social engagement.
Read more: How to ask someone about their hearing loss
When I’m in a group situation, I smile a lot. I even nod enthusiastically at whatever story I’m (somewhat) hearing. This makes the speaker feel fantastic. They might say, “Wow, what a nice friend. He totally makes me feel good about myself with his exuberance for my story.” But I’ll let you in on a little secret: Even though I’m smiling and nodding with abandon, I often don’t hear all of what’s being said. In fact, the more nods and smiles mean the less I understand.
As the speaker talks, my face is one of cheerfulness and delight, but inside I’m terrified. There’s a chance someone might ask me to chime in, which would reveal my conversational ignorance. I do not want that. So, I ride the fine line between acting engaged and being somewhat invisible and courteous, but not overly enthusiastic. As a hard of hearing person, I should ask them to repeat themselves if I need clarification on something. I’m trying to get better at that. But when the storyteller is on a roll, I don’t want to slow their momentum. It’s a balancing act – one that I tiptoe with the most upbeat and delightful disposition as possible.
I’ve been wearing hearing aids for over 10 years, so I know how to bluff with the best of them. I mimic visual cues without even thinking about it. The speaker smiles, I smile. Their eyebrows lift to make a point, mine go up as well. They take a moment to laugh, I take it a step further and respond with a “No way!” or “That’s amazing!”
The speaker feels good about himself because he now has a forum to tell a story he’s been dying to tell all day. Not only that, but he’s receiving the most optimal response he could ever ask for. I’m not saying this skill is a good thing. In some ways, it’s discourteous to pretend that I’m hearing when I’m not. But after years of bluffing, this is my default setting when in a noisy situation.
At a social gathering, a constantly evolving conversation is a nightmare. I do my best to keep up, but at some point the topic changes and I’m lost at sea. It might help if someone in the group is the Topic Gatekeeper, a person whose job it is to signal when a topic changes course.
This person needs to be a master gesturer, perhaps great at charades. Maybe she simply uses jazz hands to alert me of a topical change. The Topic Gatekeeper could also verbally repeat (in a subtle way) the new topic as to not inhibit the flow of conversation within the group. A simple, “That’s very interesting about tortoise migrations,” and I’m back in line and ready to chime in. Of course, that’s if I can add something of interest regarding tortoise migrations.
Here’s a situation that happened recently that changed everything. I was in a group of eight people and the subject matter was a complete mystery to me. I lost track about five minutes before. Instead of bluffing like I usually do, I turned to the person next to me and said, “I’m hard of hearing, can you tell me what we’re talking about?” And they were…extremely supportive and helpful! Why didn’t I think about this years ago? Simply asking for help is MUCH easier than bluffing my way through conversations, being worried about offending people, and spending half the party in the bathroom. What a revelation!
“Simply asking for help is MUCH easier than bluffing my way through conversations, being worried about offending people, and spending half the party in the bathroom.”
This is my new go-to approach at parties. I just ask the person next to me get me up to speed. Sure, every party has different situations to navigate, but now I don’t hesitate to enlist the help of others. After all, people like helping others. It makes them feel good. And it makes me feel good because I’m less stressed, aware of the conversation, and ready to chime in about those tortoise migrations.
What strategies do you employ at parties?