Is it OK if I Leave Now?

Whether or not you are open about your hearing loss, there often comes a point at which you just can’t try to listen anymore.

group of people gathering inside bar
Photo by Evonics on Pexels.com

I’m very open about my hearing loss. At this point, in fact, my hearing loss practically defines me, since I write and speak about it. The other night at a dinner party in a restaurant, the woman sitting next to me said she’d heard I was some kind of disability guru. A slight distortion but I like it.

There were seven of us at dinner, the others were in couples, I was on my own and knew only the hosts. They had told me in advance who would be there, so I didn’t have to struggle with names. The specials were on a blackboard, so I knew what I was ordering. The restaurant was reasonably quiet. So far so good.

The woman on my right was a well-known feminist scholar and I was slightly intimidated. But she was funny and friendly and very interesting. She was on my good side so I heard her her well.

After a while it seemed only polite to turn to the people on our other sides. On my left, my bad ear, was a man who was also hard of hearing. His bad ear was facing my bad ear. By twisting and leaning in and trying not to fall into my dinner plate, I caught enough for a reasonably coherent discussion.

Towards the end of dinner, over dessert and coffee, the conversation got more general, and apparently more hilarious, as everyone was laughing. It’s fun to watch people laugh – at least for a while. As it got funnier and funnier. I got more and more tired and stressed.

Under other circumstances- – with closer friends, if I were not a guest – I might have excused myself. But I didn’t know these people well and everyone had been very generous in acknowledging my hearing loss and speaking clearly. Now they were just enjoying themselves, and it seemed wrong to interrupt and ask that I be included. In fact, at that point there was probably no way I could have been included as the restaurant had gotten busy and loud.

The alternative was to excuse myself and leave. But I knew that would break up the conversation and probably end the evening. So I didn’t. Instead I relied on that old standby – faking it. I think it was the right decision.

What would you have done?

 

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55 thoughts on “Is it OK if I Leave Now?

  1. In your piece, you said nothing about seating arrangment. That is an important detail! I make a point (probably annoyingly) to select the seat with the best chance of hearing everyone. Usually putting my “bad” ear toward a wall or empty space.

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    • I was seated pretty optimally. I’m always careful about that. I hear better with my back to a wall, especially if it’s made of sound-absorbent material. It was a round table, which is also good. The conditions were about as good as they get, just not good enough for me. (Some people hear better with their back to the room — it has to do with your hearing aids and microphones and how they are set.) Thanks for writing!

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  2. Oh, this sounds so disturbingly familiar. It’s a tough call, but I think I would have done what you did, stuck it out, but I might excuse myself to use the restroom to get a little break.

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    • Beautiful, detailed description of the process of your experience, Katherine. It creates in me the urge to share it all over the place! I’m trying to think of where best to do that. Saving it for next year’s Shared Stories.is too long a time! As to what I’d do, I like Betty Hauck’s comment.

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      • Terrific post. Many of us have shared that experience. I have not found a good answer, other than acceptance. Although I have learned to accept that I will not be able to participate, I still do like the opportunity to duck out for a while as Betty Hauck suggested. My wife is from a large family, one of six siblings. Family dinners, with spouses and children, usually have at least sixteen people. With wine flowing, it often becomes noisy and impossible for me to know what is going on. I particularly miss not hearing the conversation and jokes that everyone is laughing about, but recognize, as you have, that it is unreasonable to ask people to speak one at a time, or to stop and repeat everything for me. So, I do sometimes leave the table for a respite.

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  3. Betty Hauck’s comment is spot on. I, too, would excuse myself for a restroom break or step outside for a breath of fresh air. I don’t know why it is so stressful to be in such a situation where the noise level precludes any attwmpt at conversation even with those sitting right next to me, but it is, sometimes painfully so.

    It is also a situation where hearing aids are useless and often make it worse, so have to be turned down.

    People with normal hearing (as I used to have) often do not realize that the brain acts aa a filter for sound, allowing one to focus on nearby voices rather than extraneous background noise and thus carry on a conversation in the midst of it all. Hearing aids do not do that, and when all the sounds instead are equal, it can be absolutely maddening. I imagine this is what it is like for my friends with super-acute hearing, who voice similar complaints. For me the only remedy is to turn the hearing aids off, else go mad.

    You did the right thing, Katherine, just next time maybe take a ‘normal’ type of break. 😎

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  4. This is a hard one Katherine. Thanks for bringing it up for us. At its core this piece is about the specter of social withdrawal – perhaps the most insidious of the many possible responses to hearing loss. Given the conditions you describe I believe you chose the best response.

    In a larger group, it is easy to just “disappear” for a moment to collect your calm and regroup. In such a small more intimate group it’s not that easy. I struggle with this constantly. My closest friends often have to be reminded – again – to face me or speak one at a time.

    Speaking up for myself, my needs, is hard. I know that that’s my problem. If I don’t tell you what I need you won’t be able to give me what I need. This is such a basic principle of healthy relationships, yet it’s one that is often omitted – it’s not important, it’s such a small thing, I should have mentioned this sooner, and that all time favorite of mine: they just don’t speak clearly (even though they seem to understand each other quite well).

    Your post touched my experience in so many places. What I know is that no two situations are the same. We must create on the fly, be limber and quick all at that precise moment in my life when everything seems to be slowing down. Ah, but it’s life and I like it.

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  5. Your description of everything is so familiar. I would have
    done what you did. I remember one evening sitting next
    to a person who is now high up in the Federal Government. He
    was on my deaf side, and I know he thought I was a dull, uninterested
    person. It is that feeling that I come off as not interested in current
    events that is so difficult for me to face.

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    • I can’t imagine anyone thinking you are dull or uninterested! You always have a bright open welcoming expression on your face.
      Also, if he was high up in the Federal Government (and even more so if he is now) he was probably the dull one.

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  6. Thanks for writing about an issue we often face with friends or family. I’ve used the bathroom idea over the years several times. I am also aware I’ve come off as being ores, uninteresting or just dumb because I was unable to follow a conversation.

    Your story and the excellent comments are so good for us hearing impaired to read. I always enjoy your column.

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  7. This is a very, very painful topic for me. My husband and I have often traveled with tour groups, and anyone who has done the same will remember those large round tables where travelers met for dinner. With hearing aids in both ears, it was difficult to listen to neighbors and impossible to hear what was said across the table. I envied my husband’s ability to join the flow and sometimes became irate when he tried to help by repeating to me what was being said. The curious stares of others often required an explanation, so I felt obligated to explain my hearing loss. This, of course, elicited nods of sympathy. And so the cycle goes…I will try Betty’s suggestion and excuse myself to go to the restroom, but what I’d really like to do is take a long walk. This is one of those situations where I really feel trapped, and my husband and I have agreed to try seeking dinner arrangements for two, but this isn’t always a good solution as it makes us appear antisocial.

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    • I can really sympathize with this. as I’m sure others who have commented would.
      What I learned from HLAA and from my friends and colleagues with hearing loss is that if you speak up about your hearing loss right at the start, and explain that you might ask someone to repeat what they said, or that you might not understand at all but still enjoy being in their company — that it works very well. And when it gets to be too much, just say, See you tomorrow!

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  8. I would have done exactly what you did, Katherine, although taking a bathroom break is a super suggestion. In a case like Adelaide has described, I always alert the person on my “bad side” that I may seem aloof, but that I simply cannot understand them if anyone else is speaking…Case closed! I also at times just tune out, I must admit.

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  9. If there is music playing I ask the restaurant to turn it down…sometimes they do. If the restaurant is too loud for me, it would probably be easier for non-hearing impaired to enjoy their conversations also. I usually dine with close friends, explain to others about my hearing impairment. I think that if you smile and pretend you understand the banter, that other guests might assume you stupid when you laugh inappropriately, which is bound to happen. I was speaking with a lady in her mid 80’s who admitted she often could not follow conversations, but she did not want to get hearing aids because the would make her look old! I advised her that that is better than looking stupid!

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    • All that is true, but sometimes even when you do everything right — no music, good friends, hearing aids — you still can’t hear. Sometimes it feels okay just to stay and enjoy the food and conversation. And sometimes hearing fatigue sets in and it’s usually better to say goodnight.

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  10. I always force myself to stay engaged, and I don’t remove myself, if I committed to go to an event/dinner/party. I’m never sure how much we’re are our own worst enemies, when it comes to how our hearing friends perceive us. The hearing world will never understand our challenges…it is SUCH HARD WORK, in fact exhausting, to stay engaged in what should be the most enjoyable parts of life. Being forced into silence is a very heart-wrenching experience, but often that is the route I take, rather than leave. I feel we are already perceived as being shy, stuck-up, less intelligent, and who knows what else. So I fight hard not to become “obsolete”. I am admitting though, at times rather than be obnoxious and constantly asking to repeat their comments, I simply fake it and participate to the best of my ability. Sometimes that participation is simply silence. My family is well aware of my hearing loss and is very caring about it. At my son’s birthday dinner party we sat a table set for six, He placed me between his girlfriend and himself, in the center of the seating (rectangular table), making me feel awkward, but optimizing my ability to hear everyone at the table. Dinner was taking a long time to be served at a somewhat noisy restaurant, and feeling guilty, I changed spots with him, so he was back next to his GF. When I did so, there went my ability to hear all that was being said. I’ve decided, I’m not going to do that again. He was fine with not sitting next to his GF for the 2-3 hour dinner, and I just should have stuck with his plan. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies!!!

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    • i agree that sometimes we are our own worst enemies. But I also think we have to be kind to ourselves, give ourselves a break, trust our responses. I’m more and more confident about that as I get older and deafer.

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  11. Poignant post! Finding yourself not included because you couldn’t hear, didn’t know why they were laughing — you must have developed a pretty tough skin to bear that and not feel diminished.

    When are you coming back? Can we have dinner chez toi?

    xoxLeslie

    >

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    • Hi Leslie, I sort of knew why they were laughing. I caught words here and there and body language. I just couldn’t tell what they were laughing about specifically enough to comment myself. I did ask my nice feminist historian neighbor a few times what we were talking about, and that helped.
      I was supposed to be back in New York yesterday but am snowbound – more accurately icebound — in Massachusetts. I’ll email you with some days this week or next.

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  12. Thanks for sharing this important experience, Katherine! You did the right thing.

    Hurrah for bathroom breaks. It’s the perfect solution for a time out, which I used several times when my grandson got married New Year’s Eve. The place was LOUD because of the band and the one hundred plus people. As the grandmother of the groom, I couldn’t leave until after dessert. I turned my hearing aids off because my head hurt from the noise. and used the dictation device on my iPhone to converse. The next day, I gave my brain recovery time by staying unplugged, something I can do because I live alone. That was helpful to me.

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      • Hi Bruce, I use the Notes icon on the iPhone. When you open the icon, there is a mike three spaces in on the lower left side. Tap on the mike. You will see little lines open and close as the mike reacts to ambient noise. Hand the phone to the person you are talking to and ask them to speak into it. The words will come up right away. The transcription is done by computer. Sometimes it’s not 100% accurate and can even be funny. Although it’s not good for a long conversation because you need to refresh and re open the icon, it can keep you “in the loop”. Try it and let me know what happens. Good luck!

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  13. I’m surprised and pleased by all these supportive comments. I was a little nervous about publishing this one so I sent it to a friend with hearing loss, who urged me to do it. Her own comments were eloquent, and she gave me permission to repeat them here. I especially like her sentence about the difference between solitude and isolation.

    “I think the piece is interesting, poignant and inspiring. I would not change a thing, for a number of reasons.

    First and foremost, and this is something that I have arrived at through trial and a lot of painful error: The most important thing we can each do for ourselves is to search from within, think through our options carefully, and then do what our best hunches tell us to do. The “rules” about when to stay, when to leave, when to disclose, when and how to ask for help aren’t really rules, or at least they shouldn’t be. They’re just guidelines helping us to negotiate through the maze of factors in any given situation. But sometimes, the maze requires us to forge a unique path for negotiating unique specifics. In the case of your gathering, the group was unusually generous, interesting, and also new to you – as you were to them. So to stay was a reasonable choice, and, for what it’s worth I actually think it’s likely that I would have done the same thing.

    In fact I have stayed after I’ve exceeded my fatigue meter’s warning that it’s time to leave. Sometimes, in those cases, I’ve stayed for the wrong reasons and shouldn’t have. The friends would have been miffed. Never the right reason to stay. But for my husband’s annual professional dinner gathering on the 37th floor of a big office building, I always stay and soldier through the cacophony because the people are generally helpful and bright, and it’s just for one night, and he does a lot for me, so I do it for him.

    The “rules” have always perplexed me. Especially the one about “don’t become isolated,” which I’ve always felt meant “go to the party/meeting/movie/lecture/etc.” and engage with everyone else. “Stay.” Once I had the insight that solitude is not the same as isolation, I began to understand the great value in leaving. But we don’t always have to leave every time we hit a wall. It just depends on the wall and the situation, and which factors weigh in with the most significance for each of us.”

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  14. Another tricky one is when people at a dinner party talk OVER you, as if you are not there. Often this is due to a very talkative-insensitive person, who promotes themself, at all costs. I recently left a potluck meal where this happened to me, despite my making one or two contributions and letting it be known I knew something about the subject. Sometimes this is simply due to a person who will monopolize a conversation, regardless…. There is also the phenomenon that HOH people tend to talk a lot–it’s easier than trying to listen! A good subject, Katherine–thanks for writing about it.
    I recall a great line from a “Poirot” episode–he’s trapped at a lonely manor house with a shooting party, and he doesn’t shoot. Hastings suggests leaving, and Poirot declares, “One can LEAVE?” There comes a time when it is just reasonable to suit yourself!

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  15. Hi Katherine – Excellent post and comments by all. I might add that if I have any say on where the table is located and where to be seated in the restaurant, I would choose to sit in a corner with a wall behind my head and the “bad ear” facing the corner wall. Then I would try to have a very good communicator sit on my “good ear” side so that I can hear as well as possible. The only problem is if I sit in the corner, I may be stuck in my seat and unable to excuse myself for a listening break! So when the auditory / lipreading fatigue kicks in, I will do what you did and pretend to hear. We do the best that we can, don’t we?

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  16. All these comments put me in mond of an experience some years ago when I finally bit the bullet and decided to send out an email blast to friends, colleagues and clients informing them of my hearing deficit and asking for patience and consideration when failing to respond promptly to questions or when expected to comment during meetings.

    I had thought people must think me slow, dull or uninterested on such occasions, so felt a need to explain in detail, including this bit:

    That some words are so close in sound to others that I can ‘hear’ the wrong word and, if it’s a word or phrase which makes no sense in context, I must then do an immediate mental search for the similar sounding word that would make sense – and do this as fast as possible in order to respond without too much delay. To me, those gaps in participation were often lengthy.

    But, much to my surprise, the universal reaction to my missive was along the lines of:

    “I had mo idea! I thought you were very thoughtful and being deliberate in your answers, which always seem on the mark.” Or words to that effect. No one had a clue that I was hard of hearing!

    Sometimes it is our own paranoia that interferes with perception.

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    • I did the same thing with success, Bruce. I was part of a support group for people with hearing loss at the Center for Hearing and Communication when I was working as a convention/meeting planner for a non profit organization. CHC encouraged me to share a printed memo, (that was before email days), that told staff I had a hearing loss and how to communicate with me. My instructions were appreciated but not always followed.
      I agree about our own paranoia interfering with our ability to communicate!

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    • That is so true about paranoia interfering with perception. But it’s also true that sometimes if you’re faking it people do see through it. They don’t always realize you have hearing loss but they may think you’re a little off.

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  17. Just this morning I was at a large family gathering with a lot of background noise. My late husband’s sister was telling me and a few others that her daughter wasn’t there today because she was in Belize. I said “Really, in the Middle East?” as that’s what I’d heard. Everyone cracked up. It took a few repetitions for me to catch where the daughter was, with her husband. Then I thought I heard that they had gone there to sample Mayan prunes. Again, a lot of laughter till someone repeated “Mayan ruins,” which still took me a few times to interpret correctly. I missed out on all the other jokes, except when I understood they were laughing at my own mistakes. That didn’t bother me, as they were my honest problems and it made me feel they were gaining an appreciation of the difficulty I have with conversations, especially in noisy environments.

    What I am occasionally lucky enough to be able to do is to bring another person along with me as an interpreter, someone who is willing to repeat what’s going on, at least partially. This, of course, is a rare opportunity, but sometimes someone else is happy to be in a circle of intelligent people they would not normally be with, or I’ve invited someone to an event to share with me that is of particular interest to my interpreter. It has to be a very patient person who is extremely empathetic, but when it happens, it’s like being in paradise..

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    • Such a funny example of mishearing. Thank you for sharing it. I use friends and family as interpreters all the time. Someone will say something to me and I turn to friend or daughter or anyone convenient with a clearer voice than the speaker. Sometimes (as with a store clerk or other short term encounter) I don’t even explain that I can’t hear. Who knows what they think. Once when I was traveling with my daughter, a shop clerk with a very strong accent got quite annoyed at me for not understanding the currency. Since the man in front of us had been quite obviously drunk, I think the clerk figured I was too.

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  18. Amy, I accidentally deleted your poignant comment. I’m so sorry. If you can write it again, I think others would enjoy reading it.
    I wanted to respond to your last paragraph about not being able to go to lectures, classes and so on. I’ve long felt that way — that unless there was a hearing loop or captions I’d be lost. But recently I got a new hearing aid with a clip on mike. I’ve started using it in my Pilates classes. The teachers are always happy to clip it on because it’s so small and, unlike other FM devices that use a neckloop, it doesn’t interfere with movement. For the first time ever (and I’ve been taking Pilates for 10 years) I can actually hear the instructor. I can also use it at a lecture or any place with a single speaker. It’s changed my exercise experience entirely!

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    • Please post more information about that new hearing aid with the mic! This is the first I have read of anything about that. THX

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    • I have come to depend, with much gratitude!!, on my new external, “clip-on”, mic, also! These are a wonderful addition to the new lines of hearing aids. They improve so many public hearing situations! –when taking a walking tour, with a leader, for instance. You can stand at the back of the group and still hear better than anyone!

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  19. I would have done the same thing.
    Like others, I try to sit on the right side of any theatre, closer to the speaker, and always expose my better left ear to the conversation.
    ENT tells me hearing aids will not work in my case. Sometimes I just pretend to b resting my chin on my right palm and stick a finger in my bad ear to block sound entirely as it is not only a total loss of low tones but sound is distorted as well. Perhaps I should invest in earplugs for this ear.
    I read that Mario Batali started the noisy restaurant trend. First, no need to invest in pricey sound-absorbing decor…Second, noise creates an energy (seriously?) that suggests people enjoying the heck out of themselves-uh maybe, just noise in reality. And finally, it turns tables faster because people cannot wait to eat and leave. We could campaign for quieter restaurants..
    There are studies showing a connection between hearing impairment and dementia so I am trying to take better care of myself. That includes my hearing.
    I am very open to disclosing my situation to folks and so far, so good. Or I just smile and try to pay attention.
    i am not v comfortable asking people to repeat themselves a lot.
    I don’t isolate and try to enjoy solitude.
    Plus practice gratitude. Glad it’s not worse(yet).
    Plan to buy your book on Amazon.

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  20. Such a familiar situation – thanks for raising this up! For me, sometimes there isn’t a solution that feels completely satisfying. On my 50+ year journey with hearing loss I think I’ve tried everything. Nodding and pretending I can hear, saying ‘no’ to invitations and opportunities (can feel sort of empowering but doesn’t usually make me happy), giving people a heads-up about my hearing loss and asking for what I need (can help but not always), making an excuse to leave early, even bursting into tears of frustration in the company of people I didn’t know very well (embarrasing but surprisingly freeing). Verrrry slowly, I’ve come to accept that there are many times when I just can’t find a solution that enables me to hear or a response that feels like the ‘right’ one. But here’s the thing: it’s gotten to be okay. I don’t like it, but it really is okay. So even if I’m not hearing the words of a funny story that has everyone in stitches, I can enjoy their enjoyment. That feels good. Yesterday, an invitation came to my 40th high school reunion. All those people talking at once in one room… gulp. But I’m open to it knowing that it’ll be frustrating, tiring and probably still worth it. I can always leave early if I can extricate myself gracefully. 🙂

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      • Katherine,

        This is one of the best columns you have ever written. Good for you!

        Are you back in the city?

        Ruth

        >

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      • Ruth, thank you so much! This means a lot to me. I am back. When I left this morning it was 0. Had to get gas and give the dogs a little walk and it was so cold it made me nauseated. Happy to be back in relatively balmy New York, full of light and people.

        On Tue, Jan 22, 2019 at 8:57 PM Katherine Bouton wrote:

        >

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  21. This insightful post and the thoughtful comments are a big help to me. I am not HOH, but I live in a country where I do not yet speak the language well — or, more relevantly, I do not yet understand the spoken language well (though I can read and write it fairly fluently). Nearly all of the situations you describe, and the associated feelings, fears, and frustrations, apply to my situation as well, and so your suggestions and coping strategies are very useful. Thank you!

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