We have long known that men and women talk differently. This includes the way they talk about hearing loss.
A 2015 study found considerable differences. Women were more than twice as likely as men to disclose the loss and offer helpful suggestions about how to talk to them. A woman might say, “I don’t hear well out of my right ear. Please walk on my left side.”
Men tend to simply state that they are hard of hearing, and then offer an explanation about how they lost their hearing. One researcher commenting on the Harvard study suggested that men need to develop an “elevator pitch,” a strategy “that they can comfortably deploy when they need to disclose their hearing loss.”
The study, conducted by Jessica West and Konstantina Stankovic, colleagues at Harvard University and Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston, suggests that the women’s approach is far more helpful in successful communication.
The women’s strategy gives “a simple, straight-forward explanation of the hearing loss while highlighting ways in which communication partners can help the person with hearing loss to hear better in the situation,” they said. “It focuses on how to improve the communicative interaction rather than on the hearing loss itself.”
Men are almost twice as likely to have hearing loss as women, especially in the 20 to 69 age group, according to the the National Institute of Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
If men are twice as likely to have hearing loss as women, are they also twice as likely to use hearing aids? There is no really good study of this to date. But how you respond to your hearing loss, with or without hearing aids, is crucial to successful communication.
There are other gender differences besides speech patterns that may influence communication. Men are less comfortable with sustained eye contact than women, and they are less comfortable showing emotion. These can affect the ability to speech-read, which is a substantial benefit to many with hearing loss.
The writer Gael Hannan has given several workshops on speech reading, including one called “Man-Lips: Men and Speechreading — Facing the Challenge.” She thinks there is a gender difference in speech reading success. Women do it better. Hannan has a hard time even getting men into her courses. She suggests that if you want to run a male-inclusive speech reading course, promote it as a “success strategy” and incorporate lots of gadgets.
What about those studies on hearing aid use? We see a lot of men with hearing aids, which might make you think men are more likely to wear hearing aids. But there are two reasons for that perception (or misperception). The first is that a hearing aid is more visible on a man with short hair or no hair at all. The second is that twice as many men as women have hearing loss.
But the fact is that we simply don’t know the ratio of hearing aid use in men and women. Two reputable studies in the past five years have found two different results.
A large 2011 Swiss study of 4979 adult male and 3410 adult female hearing aid users found that women were more likely to use their hearing aids regularly, and for longer periods during the day than men. The men were more likely to blame their non-use on the limited benefits they got from the hearing aid.
A more recent study of hearing aid use in the United States among older adults found that men said they used their hearing aids at about the same rate that women said they did. But it’s important to remember that this is self-report. We all know the temptation to answer the way you think you should answer. Only about one third of the respondents who could benefit from hearing aids had them. The Swiss study also relied on self-report but added hearing loss data and hearing aid technical information, which may have affected the results.
The bottom line for understanding speech better: talk more like a woman, behave more like a woman and wear your hearing aids.
This article first appeared in a slightly different form on AARP Hearing Health on January 24, 2017