Friday, May 14, 2010

The Headache of Social Bluffing

On Tuesday, L.J. Miles of the blog Life with the Diva wrote a bit about "social bluffing." Social bluffing is something everyone does, hearing loss or not. If you are in a conversation and not quite hearing every word, many people compensate by pretending they've heard it, rather than disrupt the flow of conversation. Of course, if you have a hearing loss or something else affecting your comprehension, you'll end up resorting to "social bluffing" more often than hearing people need to.

"Conversation," by Pissaro
I myself do it all the time. I'm not kidding, all the time. Everyday conversation for me, with someone whose voice I'm not completely used to, is like a constant race to catch up to the conversation. If I miss a word, I have to mentally fill it in, and that of course delays my comprehension of the entire sentence. If I miss a whole statement, I then have to listen to other people's responses, to parse the context. Sometimes, I simply have to mentally check out of a conversation. It can be mentally exhausting to keep up with several people talking at once. I've actually found myself doing that more and more lately, but I don't like it. I don't like simply giving up on a conversation even if I know people will understand I'm just not hearing it.

So why not ask people to repeat themselves? A couple reasons. One is that it disrupts the conversation, as I mentioned above. Especially if you ask someone to repeat something when they were not speaking to you - if you're part of a conversation but someone else was being addressed. You have to take the chance of interrupting a response, and possibly cutting off other routes a conversation could have taken. Another is that people just don't like to repeat themselves. I can't tell you the number of times I've had to ask a stranger to repeat themselves (I work with the public) and gotten a dour stare in return. An uncomprehending stare, no less. Nothing can make you feel more stupid than asking for clarification and getting THAT look.

Oh, and then there's the dreaded "never mind." Or "ah, it wasn't important." The hand-wave. The blow-off. It's the other person telling you that if you didn't hear it in the first place you aren't important enough to be able to understand it. I could write this entire blog post just ranting about that phrase, so I'm going to leave it there. But it is another reason I dislike asking people to repeat themselves.

The problem is that trying to bluff your way through a conversation can have even more disastrous consequences than asking somebody to repeat themselves. You can find yourself making inappropriate responses for the conversation, answering questions incorrectly, and experiencing awkward silences when the other person is done but you can't continue the conversation. It can lead to people thinking you're stupid, slow or inappropriate. It can lead to frantic scrambling as you try to cover your butt and make an excuse for why the heck you just said a complete non-sequitur. I'm having terrible flashbacks to high school.

So why is it so easy for me and other people with hearing loss to continue bluffing? Well, for me it's because I'm pretty shy already and I'd generally rather try not to be assertive and make sure I'm understanding things. I know I shouldn't think like that, but that's my thought process. For most of my school years I got along basically just listening to the teacher, and watching other students if I missed anything (that is, if I knew I missed anything. Who knows how much just flew past me?). Many people I went to school with did not know I had a hearing loss. Unfortunately many of them probably thought that I was stuck up or hated everyone because I "ignored" them.

I've been trying lately to come up with ways to avoid bluffing. I ask members of the public who speak to me at work to write down as much as possible for a library card application, for example. I have them write down the names of books they are looking for and the names of their children who want cards. Sometimes if I know I heard something wrong, I make a joke out of it and say "Oh, I thought you said this, but that can't be right!" to bring a little humor into it. Of course I'm still bluffing every day. Sometimes you just have to - it's a survival mechanism. I'll just keep on figuring ways to get around it.


  1. I've a degree in social bluffing lol it's a defence mechanism isn't it ? we don't want to be appear stupid or out of the loop so we adopt that nodding, and wink-wink appraise which suggest we are well aware of what goes on. It's a our prime disablement, we won't admit we can't hear.... in case they then assume you won't understand anyway, which is wasted time, they still will do that !

    we also develop extensive conversation techniques to 'guide' hearing people into communication areas we can't get caught out with (Most of the time !). Are deaf snobs, some are ! some like you say adopt the greta garbo thing to avoid being seen silly or giving wrong responses, better to be called a snob than stupid, weird logic !

  2. I've found that, for me, the best way to avoid bluffing is to engage in conversations with people or on topics I'm really interested in. Then I won't mind blank stares, hand wavings etc if they come up -- and just insist. I try to avoid the uninteresting. Saves everybody's life time.

  3. What you are doing is manipulating conversations to suit what YOU feel confident about, I do it too ! I think it is a real skill personally deaf can acquire, albeit it an appear to hearing as if you only want to talk about what you like not about what they want to talk about, and preventing them from expanding off topic into areas you are totally vulnerable.

    It's both an art, and a real failing, because it in many respects prevents true social interaction. Why do deaf talk about deaf culture almost to the exclusion of anything else ? They are on safe ground.

  4. >Both an art, and a real failing

    Interesting topic, MM! Well, I'd say it depends on how you combine the choosing of topic and talker. Both have proven to be uninteresting? If you don't want to bluff, get the hell out of there. That's the type of situation in which even hearing people do it. If either one or both show promise, you like the person or the topic, I'd say cut them some slack and see where the conversation is going.

    I wouldn't worry too much about preventing "true social interaction" because even for hearing people that's a very rare experience. And for us it's plain impossible, so might as well not bother looking for it. (Unless you are signing among those who know sign language.)

  5. It's a defence mechanism plain and simple, we all do it, even the most independent of us, because at base, we lack the confidence, OK we cannot hear, but as one American pundit put it (Was it Kokonut Pundit ?), we should not use our deafness as a crutch. We do anyway. I could so easily just opt out altogether, what peace it might bring ? retire to areas where communication is never a real issue ?

    Accept your deafness will ALWAYS be the issue ? but some of us can't, we HAVE to be 'in there' pitching all the time no matter how difficult, few of us succeed, but trying is the thing I think. Maybe because the view the 'Real World' is out there. I think it is a particular view of people who go deaf, they want the status quo returned. It may defy logic, none-the-less drives a number of people.


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