Down with decibels: Let's take hearing seriously

  • Article by: JOHN M. ROSENBERG
  • Updated: May 5, 2014 - 6:18 PM

Ever-present earbuds. Noisy restaurants as standard fare. Missing out on witty banter. Perhaps people don’t understand what they might one day be missing.

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As someone with a lifelong hearing deficiency, my day-to-day reality is akin to having an auto-correct in my head jumbling the words of other people, often with humorous effect. Though everyone has trouble with such things as song lyrics — mishearing “Rock the Casbah” as “rock the cat box,” such mix-ups are no laughing matter when contending with everyday conversation.

Each May, the Gaithersburg, Md.-based American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) assists audiologists and speech-language pathologists in educating the 36 million American adults and a rapidly rising number of young people who are confronting hearing loss on how to recognize and cope with the affliction.

According to the ASHA, the ways in which people acquire a hearing deficiency are varied, including: genetics, aging, exposure to noise, illness, chemicals and physical trauma. I came into it as a small child via persistent ear infections brought on by an allergic reaction to the acrid haze of cigarette smoke at home.

Though in later years I was as culpable as everyone else in my age group for cranking the volume up on Led Zeppelin, I’m especially dismayed by today’s young people with their omnipresent ear buds blasting dangerously loud music only millimeters from their eardrums. This is also a generation coming of age believing that a 90-decibel restaurant ambience is the normal and agreed-upon threshold for a happening place.

Restaurant owners have taken notice, and the decibel meter is now as standard equipment for food critics as is a discerning palate.

For those of us with challenged hearing, however, entering a busy establishment with concrete floors, bare walls, uncovered tables and a noise level that’s the equivalent of a throttled-up gas lawn mower brings the promise of an evening of ringing ears, a hoarse throat and the feeling that I’ve been pounded by a meat mallet.

The ambiguity associated with not being able to hear with clarity also brings about psychological discomfort, including a constant fretting over not knowing if one has just been asked a question. In less-than-ideal acoustic settings, I end up devoting more mental energies to maintaining the pretense of following along with a conversation than I do in enjoying in the actual discussion.

For many people, the inability to adequately process spoken communication can be extremely isolating. As someone who makes his living by interviewing people, I can ill afford to avoid conversational settings, though sometimes I do shy away from circumstances in which I’ll have to deliberate with difficult-to-understand individuals out of fear that I will mistakenly agree to wearing a puffy shirt or volunteer to help them move.

By and large, when talking with someone one on one, I am completely within my element, but there is a proportional falloff in my rate of conversation as more and more people enter the mix. In addition, I have always eschewed good-humored banter given the amount of mental processing that one must undertake in order to fully grasp what has just been uttered, thus rendering any attempts at quick and witty back-and-forth jesting downright impossible.

One upshot of lousy hearing is that my reading of body language is quite adept. Not only do I subconsciously use this ability to help figure out what people are saying to me, but it comes in handy as a professional journalist in picking out nonverbal cues as to people’s true thoughts and feelings.

There is no Lasik surgery-like counterpart for loss of hearing. No credible stem-cell advances are on the horizon to restore damaged auditory hair cells.

On the other hand, there is a multiplicity of things that individuals can do to protect their hearing. Many of them are fairly obvious lifestyle decisions, such as making adjustments at one’s place of work, carefully selecting the toys that we buy for our children or being more prudent in the way in which we listen to music.

What’s less obvious is the drawn-out destruction wrought by sound energy, spread out over a lifetime. My Uncle Paul suffered substantial neurological damage to the inner ear during his military service and from years as an avid hunter. I once asked him about having attended a performance of “A Prairie Home Companion” at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. He stated that he could hear the music just fine, but that the tongue-in-cheek storytelling of host Garrison Keillor was indecipherable. According to my uncle, “When everyone laughed, I just nodded my head and laughed, too.”

 

John M. Rosenberg, a native of Albert Lea, Minn., is a foreign-affairs writer living in suburban Washington, D.C.

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