In many ways, our daily conversations with people are like a dance (and you thought you couldn’t dance!). Both involve a lot of verbal (and non-verbal) cues that offer their fair share of awkward moments and the opportunity to insert one’s foot in their mouth. Tones, voices, words, expressions, touches, eye contact, various emotions– all are involved in the simple act of having a conversation with someone. But what happens when your verbal dancing is a bit out of sync? What happens when you find yourself increasingly misunderstanding what people are saying?
The Misunderstanding Two-Step: Hearing Loss & Communication
Causes of Verbal ‘Misunderstandings’
Misunderstandings are often an unavoidable part of daily communications. They’re bound to happen to all of us, including those with good hearing. When someone’s message is incorrectly heard or interpreted, it can, at times, lead to unintended and, at times, bizarre, consequences. Just ask that poor tomato plant from the above video, of course, that means you’d be talking to a tomato and that’s bizarre too. But to a person with a hearing loss, these moments of misunderstanding can occur more often and ultimately, over time, confuse and cause emotional distress. That’s because hearing loss in the higher frequencies can affect one’s ability to distinguish the sounds of speech and thus misunderstanding speech is a typical symptom of hearing loss.
Misunderstanding in speech is often caused by mixing up consonant sounds, resulting in miscommunicated dialog. Listeners with high-frequency hearing loss can pick up plenty of volumes, but not the clarity of the speech. It’s a frustrating combination that results in challenges to clearly making out certain words. Consonants are important; they can contribute up to 70% of our understanding of speech. For example, to hear the word “peach,” the listener hears the ea/e/ vowel sound generated by another’s voice. The consonant sounds p/p/ and ch/ch/ are softer by nature and generated by the breath stream and articulators. You can see that the “p” sound carries a relatively soft intensity of 20 dB in the chart below.
Why does this matter?
A listener with high-frequency hearing loss often cannot distinguish between soft consonant sounds. For example, the word “peach” may be interpreted as “beach”, “meet”, “reach”, or “keep” (anyone hungry for a ripe, fuzzy beach?). And the brain plays an important and creative role here. It adapts to situations very quickly and fills in lost consonants to give meaning to an incomplete word, leading to some of those unwanted, or perhaps rather humorous, misunderstandings.
Misunderstandings are no laughing matter.
Wait – on second thought….misunderstandings can actually be pretty funny sometimes. We asked people to provide us some funny misunderstandings they’ve experienced. Their submissions didn’t disappoint, and some gave us a good chuckle.
Taking the ‘mis’ out of ‘misunderstanding’
For someone who is constantly experiencing “misunderstandings” as a result of a hearing loss, a hearing aid can actually play a very helpful role in deriving clarity from speech. How? Hearing aids can emphasize and amplify the high-frequency ranges, which is needed to help with improving speech clarity. Furthermore, new hearing aid technologies have made even further enhancements in driving speech clarity.
Of course, there are other ways that help when communicating, including:
- Visual Cues. Staying in the line of sight of the person whom you are speaking to and displaying supportive body language during communication.
- Repetition. Be transparent and proactive in your conversations and ask people to repeat things that you didn’t hear correctly.
- Train Your Brain. Actively training your brain to work in tandem with a device like a hearing aid. That means approaching people socially and attending more social gatherings to build a better connection and optimize your auditory systems.
While we can’t ensure you avoid any misunderstandings, we hope some of the information provided here serves you well as you hit up your next crowded room (read more about “15 Ways to Maintain Good Hearing Health“). As for helping you perfect the tango, that’s a post for another day. It’ll be a long one.
Eargo is fortunate to have some highly – some might say overly – talented hearing professionals. If you’re interested in exploring whether a solution like Eargo may be right for you, feel free to give us a call: 1-800-734-7603.
 Daniel Fogerty and Larry E Humes (2010) Perceptual contributions to monosyllabic word intelligibility: Segmental, lexical, and noise replacement factors, 3114-25. DOI: 10.1121/1.3493439
 Daniel Fogerty and Larry E Humes (2010) The role of vowel and consonant fundamental frequency, envelope, and temporal fine structure cues to the intelligibility of words and sentences, 3114-25. DOI: 10.1121/1.3493439
 Rebecca E. Hayden (1950) The Relative Frequency of Phonemes in General American English, WORD, 6:3, 217-223, DOI: 10.1080/00437956.1950.11659381