Monday, June 16, 2008


I have been told many times throughout my life that I lip read so well. I say thank you, but inside I am thinking, "If you were me, you would too!"

Shortly after I lost my hearing, I began taking speech therapy sessions. Despite attending hundreds of these things, the sessions were so mundane that I have very little memory of them.

I took them until I was nineteen years old. The vast majority were at school. At some point--I think in 1993?--a speech therapist began visiting my home. I remember her well; even her name. Donna. She was young and fun, a nice change from the speech therapists of past, with their coiled hair and tight, patient smiles. After Donna, there was a hiatus until the next speech therapist, who I began seeing at eighteen. Finally, at nineteen, I had enough. College was looming. I was more than ready to stretch my wings and shake off these things that had bound me to earth, speech therapy included.

Speech therapy was not directed at learning how to read lips; however, it helped.

Lip reading is a learned skill, completely left brain. There isn't an iota of creativity involved.

When I read lips, I do not just take in the lips--I take in the entire face; no, the entire body. I don't just read lips--I read body language. Human beings dislike being categorized as animals but, frankly, that's what you are. You're a mammal, and like every other mammal, you use body language to communicate, whether you are aware of it or not.

It can be as subtle as having one foot forward, one wrinkle in the brow, one flick of the eyes. Body language tells me your mood, your thoughts, before you even speak.

Everyone speaks differently. Therefore, each time I meet someone new, my brain needs to run the program all over again. Every person has different facial features. Moles, wrinkles, mustaches, big noses, furrowed brows, large eyes, thin lips, huge chins. As this new person speaks, my brain maps these items, particularly the lips. My brain pieces everything together into patterns and stores the information for future use.

Once I've met you, I will always have a file on you in my head. It may be stored away for years; it may become dusty and outdated. But when I meet you again, no matter how long it's been--two hours, two decades--the file will update itself.

Every time I speak to someone, it becomes easier and easier to lip read this person.

I find men harder to lip read than women. Women are expressive, open. Women are much more sensual by nature and feel comfortable expressing open facial and physical language. I've met men who barely moved their lips when they spoke; they were simply impossible to communicate with.

And don't get me started on facial hair!

Another program my brain uses when I'm lip reading is what I like to think of as the train of thought program.

When I haven't spent very many hours with you, and am still busily updating the file on you within my head, it is easiest to follow along with what you are saying if you follow one train of thought.

For example, if I am at a job interview, I will expect the person interviewing me to ask me the usual questions--tell me about yourself, what have you done for past employers, so on and so forth.

If this person suddenly, randomly, begins talking about baseball stats, the train in my head will violently derail. As soon as that happens, I will completely stop understanding what this person is saying to me. I will see their lips moving but I will have no idea what is coming out of their mouth because the train within my head is frantically trying to upright itself.

After a couple moments, I will be able to follow along once again.

You see, the train of thought program has a few different tracks laid out for each person I speak to. Each one is a possible branch the person may go down. If at an interview, I will have a track for each possible interview question.

If I'm with my vet, I will have tracks for equine health issues.

If I'm at the post office, I will have tracks for "Would you like delivery confirmation with that?" and "Would you like to buy stamps?"

And etc, etc, etc, you get the idea.

The more I know you, the more tracks there will be for you. My husband has a trillion tracks. My immediate family has a zillion.

There are, however, two things that I am always, always horribly bad at lip reading, no matter who you are.

1) Joke punch lines

Jokes themselves are fine. The punch lines, however, are so unpredictable that, unless I've heard the joke before, I will have no clue whatsoever what you are saying when you give me the joke's punch line.

2) Names

Oh names, names, names, how I hate thee...I am horrid, horrible, awful, at remembering names. Why? Partly because I have no idea what people are saying when they give me names!

When someone gives me a name, I brace myself. It can go in any direction! Bob! Ausheneyah! Sally! Trevathian! My head reels before the name is ever uttered.

Human or animal, I am horrid with names. Sometimes when a name is given to me, I seize at the first guess of what I think it is and--surprise!--I'm correct. But that is a rarity.

In summary, three things allow me to understand you.
  • Your body language.
  • The map and patterns of your speech, AKA "The file"
  • Anticipating what will be said, AKA "The train of thought"

Despite all this, meeting someone new is always a tense affair for me. There is that slight chance that I will simply not be able to understand you, no matter what. It's very rare but it can happen. Meeting a group of new people can be downright panic. For this reason, I tend to stay away from large social gatherings unless I already know several of those attending very, very well.

So remember, when you first meet me, please be patient. I may say "Excuse me?" a few times, but that's only because I'm still updating my mental lip-reading file on you. It can only get better from there.


Anonymous said...

Hi Heidi - this is fantastic!!! I know I am just a little prejudice but, WOW. Wonderful writing skill! I laughed at the appropriate times and felt sad too at the appropriate times. Good for you! Love ya, Mom

Tina said...

Your mom is right. This was a very, very good entry to give us all insight into your world, and help us understand what you have to go through on a daily basis. Although I do not know you personally, you have helped me move forward in relationships with other hearing impaired people.

Patrick'sSlew said...

Wow I could not have said this better myself. Your blog is awesome. I just found it yesteday after a posting you did on COTH so I started at the beginning and have got this far.