Small Talk with a Stylist

During the summer, while spending some time in England, I had a really great experience at a hair salon. Although I was very happy with my new style, this wasn’t the reason for the experience being great. It was great because I had a conversation with my stylist. This maybe doesn’t sound like anything noteworthy, but for someone with a hearing loss, to be able to converse in a hair salon is actually something pretty fantastic.

There is so much background noise in a hair salon. There are the hairdryers, and the music that is often played loudly to be heard over the sound of the dryers. There must be the noise of water running out of the taps from the sinks where people have their hair washed, but this gets lost amongst the other sounds. There is the noise of people talking in raised voices attempting to converse; in a battle of audio strength with the other sounds of the salon. There are generally no or few soft furnishings in hair salons – I guess it wouldn’t be very practical to have thick curtains and carpets, due to all the stray hair. With an absence of soft furnishings, there is nothing to absorb the sound, and so it spends it’s time bumping into the mirrors, bouncing off the windows and porcelain sinks; continuously combining with the additional noises being produced every second.

It almost seems like it is part of a hairdresser’s job to make small talk with their customers. A hairdresser may get to know their client’s holiday plans; where they work; where they live; if they are in a relationship and if so for how long; and whether they have kids. The salon chair is often akin to the therapists couch; inspiring people to speak about their personal lives. Since my hearing loss, I have struggled with the whole hair-cutting experience due to the amount of noise in hair salons and the conversation difficulties. I was feeling a little nervous before going to this appointment. I had waited until I was in England visiting my sister to get my hair cut; at least this way I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to speak Spanish as well as not being able to hear properly. The appointment was at my regular hair salon, though I hadn’t met the stylist before. As usual the stylist and I had a quick conversation about the type of cut I would like, and then just before the stylist left to ask a colleague to wash my hair, I quickly added (whilst cupping my left ear with my left hand), “Oh, by the way, I’m deaf in this ear.” Lauren, the stylist smiled and assured me that this was fine.

After having my hair washed, I was back again sitting in the chair facing my reflection in the mirror. During the couple of weeks prior to this appointment, I had been trying to develop my lip-reading skills naturally by watching lips during conversations, and had had some success in doing this, especially in bars and restaurants. I was keen to continue practising my new superpower-in-progress.

Even the best lip-readers are only able to understand around 30% of what is actually said by solely relying on lip-reading; the rest is educated guesswork, gathered from context.  In fact ventriloquists are able to produce a voice with little or no movement of the lips, since most sounds are produced inside the mouth where you can’t see them. And so, there is a limit to how accurate even the most skilled of lip-readers could ever be, because most sounds aren’t produced with the lips. Nevertheless, watching a speaker’s lip movements, facial expressions and gestures during a conversation can be very beneficial in aiding verbal communication.

I watched Lauren’s lips in the mirror as she spoke, and in using the shapes her lips were making along with the sounds and words I could hear, I was able to follow most of what she was saying. After telling me about her work schedule for the week, she asked me what I did for work. I told her that I teach in Madrid. She told me she had never been there, though she had once been to Barcelona and that she had loved it. She commented on her holiday saying, “You know Pans, Pans and Co’?” (This is a sandwich franchise in Spain) “Why don’t they have them here? It’s like, they have Subway here, but Pans and Co is way better. The bread is amazing! Oh, I just want a Pans!” I smiled at this remark, and the conversation continued in a light-hearted dance of words.

I briefly noted that whilst watching the movement of Lauren’s lips in the mirror, it at least meant that I wasn’t spending the time awkwardly looking at my reflection. She must have noticed my stare, and asked me, “So do you lip-read then?” My secret was out. She wanted to talk about it. Great – I was happy to discuss my new project. I told her that I was trying to learn how to read lips. Lauren then asked whether I had always been deaf in my left ear. She seemed really interested – not just the general hairdresser level of interest – she actually seemed curious about my hearing loss. I told her my story in brief. She then surprised me by telling me her story. She recounted how she had caught glandular fever multiple times when she was a child, and this had resulted in her losing the hearing in one of her ears. She told me that she had found it really difficult especially since the doctors weren’t able to tell her whether her hearing would return. Luckily it did return within 3 months. She explained how during her time with hearing loss, she used to have the sensation of being underwater; the sound and pressure of water filling and whooshing past her ears. I told her that I also have this feeling.  I described how I always think sounds are coming from my right side, and she finished my sentence by saying, “Because that’s the ear you are hearing everything through.” The conversation moved to some more general discussion about hair thickness after that. But for that brief moment, it had felt so great to have shared a few words with someone who had an understanding of my hearing loss.

After this small exchange of experiences, Lauren switched off the hairdryer every time she wanted to tell me something of importance. She also spent most of the time with her body turned so that I could look at her face-on in the mirror, and follow her lips and her words. I felt such a sense of accomplishment to have been able to understand so much more of the conversation than I had on previous trips to the hair salon, following my hearing loss. Of course I didn’t understand everything that was said, but I doubt many people do. I left the salon with a new hairstyle and some newly found confidence in my developing superpower.

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“You really need to learn how to lip read.”

I walked into a busy classroom and the teacher motioned for me to go over to where they were sitting. As I approached, they proceeded to whisper a remark about a child in their class. The whispering took place behind their hand. When they realised I hadn’t heard them, they removed their hand from their face and repeated the whispered remark; making over-pronounced shapes with their lips. The classroom was noisy, and I had no idea of context to help me in decoding what my colleague had said to me. They began to chuckle. I feigned an amused-sounding laugh; assuming this was an offhand statement which required no verbal response, and that a laugh in concurrence would suffice. Yet my reaction failed in convincing the teacher of my comprehension. The comment which followed was not about a child, but instead was directed at me. My colleague was obviously irritated at my inability to hear them, and the comment was made in response to this annoyance. It was conveyed with intense clarity. Each word was enunciated in a loud voice: “You really need to learn how to lip read.” I heard it perfectly. I left the room without a verbal response.

A couple of days later, again I went in to the same classroom and again my colleague signalled for me to go over to where they were sitting. They proceeded again to whisper a remark about a child in their class. I didn’t hear them, and again the same words were spoken: “You really need to learn how to lip read.” This time however, the comment was made twice. Both times I was unresponsive. Although I hadn’t heard them clearly the first time, I knew what had been said, though I wasn’t able to voice a response. I stared, aghast, at my colleague as they reiterated themselves, looking at me with a mixed expression of irritation shifting towards smugness; smirking at their own wit. How could they think this was appropriate, even funny?

I am accustomed to letting go of frustrating moments. I can shrug off aggravated looks from strangers when I fail to move out of their way in the supermarket, or when I don’t respond to them when they address me on my deaf side. I have learnt not to concern myself with raised annoyed voices, and irritated repetition of words. I even try to find retrospective humour in times of mishearing. I was surprised at my reaction to my colleague’s comment. My usual response of smiling to create a barrier; in protecting myself from such remarks was, for that moment, deactivated. My openness in talking about my hearing loss and explaining how it can make communication difficult, especially in noisy environments, was momentarily paused. After receiving the comment I felt vulnerable, weak, confidence drained. This colleague was someone who had asked me questions about my hearing loss and had shown interest in learning about my tinnitus. I thought they had some understanding. I failed to form a verbal response because I was in shock. I was upset. I was disappointed.

I have since had time to contemplate the interaction and have structured a response for any similar situation in the future. I should have said to my colleague that while I’m sure it wasn’t their intention, that their comment hurt me. I should have told them that I understand it can be frustrating for people to have to repeat themselves, and that this frustration may be elevated when they are busy. I would like my colleague to know that I am beginning to find myself watching lips during conversation, in situations where there is a lot of background noise, or when someone has a strong accent. I am using the shapes and movements of lips to help me translate the jumbled sounds into some meaning. I should have also told them that they had a valid point – although it could have been conveyed with some compassion or during a confidential moment. I should learn how to lip read. Not because my colleague thinks so, but because it seems like the natural next step for me in developing my communication skills.

In future I would like to give some information to my colleagues about lip reading. I would like to suggest ways of helping someone who is trying to read lips. Just because someone has experienced a hearing loss it doesn’t mean, by some kind of transferred skill, that they are instantly able to lip read with ease. These skills take time, practise and patience. I would like to explain that background noise and lack of context can make lip reading extremely difficult. That reading someone’s lips whilst they are speaking behind their hand is impossible, and that over-pronounced lip shapes are not helpful for the reader.

This experience has drawn my attention to the lack of understanding my colleagues may still have of my situation. Despite having explained some of the communication difficulties I face, I know it is easy for people to forget. I don’t look any different to how I did before my hearing loss. I am thankful for the people who ask questions, who listen, and who try to have some comprehension of my condition. Yet some people may not feel comfortable to ask questions. If I don’t explain how this type of comment can make me feel, then how are people going to know what an upsetting impact such a comment may have? Next time I will explain. Now I feel ready to respond to any similar remarks in a strong and positive manner, as the hearing loss advocate I am learning to become.