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Dinner with hearing loss

Friend #1 says something, but I didn’t hear it. I ask her to repeat it, but before I get the words out, friend #2 has already responded to her, moving the conversation forward, yet farther away from me. I say “What?” again, but this does not stop the flow. Friend #1 replies to Friend #2 and they are off, leaving me behind.

Friend #3, sensing my frustration, acts as a translator, summarizing what has been said so I can catch up. While this is thoughtful behavior and often gets us back on track, I sometimes wonder if it perpetuates the problem by enabling the inconsiderate behavior.

Does this sound familiar to you?

Hearing Loss Makes Dinner Time Challenging

For many people the evening meal is the most social part of the day. That is certainly the case for me. Whether it is a family dinner, date night, work event or evening out with friends, conversation and connection often revolve around the dinner table.

This can be a challenging situation for people with hearing loss, since at meals other forces are often at play:

  • Background noise can overpower conversation, particularly when dining out.
  • Chewing distorts lip and facial expressions making lipreading harder.
  • Napkins keep our faces clean, but block our mouths if used while speaking.
  • Dim lighting can obscure speech-reading clues.
  • People speak over each other or change the topic without warning.
  • Side conversations sometimes break out within the group.

Tips For Better Conversation at Meal Times

How can we make sure we are not left out of the dialogue? Use these tips — and share them with your dining partners — to enjoy the companionship and joy of your next shared meal.

  1. Control the seating arrangement. While this may not always be possible, controlling the seating can set you up for communication success. Ideally, I position myself with my back against a wall or in a corner to block background noise. I ask my most difficult conversation partners to sit across from me so I can use lipreading cues to help me hear them.
  1. Enlist a hearing buddyWhile I sometimes worry that “translators” at the dinner table enable poor communication behavior by others to continue, they certainly do help. When possible, ask a hearing buddy to alert you to a topic change or repeat something you missed. 
  1. Be upfront about your hearing loss. An easy way to do this is while organizing where everyone will sit. Say something like, “I have a hearing loss, so if nobody minds, I would like to sit with my back to the wall,” or “Bob, do you mind sitting across from me so I can hear you better? I have trouble hearing low voices.” 
  1. Control the environment if possible. Keep the lights up and the music low. Even when dining out, accommodations can be made if you speak to the manager or make a notation in your reservation. Planning ahead will make this more likely. 
  1. Remind people about good communication habitsAsk people to speak one at a time and to keep their face and mouth free from barriers to aid with lipreading. They will forget, so a gentle reminder every once in a while might be needed. 
  1. Pick your battles. It is unlikely that any dining situation will be free of communication issues. This is ok. Remember that you don’t need to hear every word to get the gist of the conversation. Ask a few clarifying questions when necessary, but try not to overwhelm every speaker unless the information is critical.
  1. Use hand signals to indicate when you cannot hear. Cupping your ear with your hand or pointing to your ear will let the speaker know you cannot hear him without interrupting the flow of the dialogue. A thumbs up will let him know you are grateful for his efforts.
  1. Use assistive listening technology. Depending on the size of the group, a remote microphone or similar device can help bring distant voices closer or amplify them over background noise. Experiment with different settings on your hearing aids too. Getting your family involved can make it a fun technology adventure.
Shari Eberts

Shari Eberts

Shari Eberts is a hearing health advocate, writer, speaker and avid Bikram yogi. She blogs at LivingWithHearingLoss.com and serves on the Board of Trustees of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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