What to Do When the Speed of Sound Exceeds the Speed of Light
by Rachel Kolb
Lesson One: Introductions
Look your companion in the eye and lay out the ground rules. Slow down. Look at me. Speak clearly. Stop covering your mouth with your hands. Say these things while trying not to feel embarrassed that your mode of communication is so different. Realize how often you have neglected saying them at all. Silently, wish you could establish more rules within the parameters of politeness. Shave your facial hair. Make your lips less like sphincters or sausages. Stop lisping. Stop rambling. Be expressive! Make yourself totally, unmistakably clear.
Realize that, if your companion is unaccustomed to talking with a deaf person, he (or she) will be likely to do one of two things: nod assent and then proceed to forget these guidelines completely, or take them a bit too seriously. Symptoms of the latter include wide buggy eyes, a stilted air, and overenunciation. Resist the temptation to snort and remark that, if your companion says “Ooookaayy, eeeezz theeiiss eh-nyy beh-tehrr?” it does not help, it only makes him look like a clown.
Remember, in seventh grade, a teacher who did not understand these things, who patted you on the back and pointed and looked anxious and stretched his lips almost to bursting, all in efforts to make you understand. Recall how this teacher’s antics made you uncomfortable before finally they made you laugh. One day surfaces in your memory, a class field trip to the river to collect bugs, when he sloshed up and warned you not to driiiiink the wahhh-tehrrr, despite the fact that you were thirteen years old and intelligent and this wasn’t water, it was mud. You stared after him in astonishment for a moment, suspended in doubt before your inner self spoke up and saw the absurdity of it and you and your best friend tumbled into giggles.
Watch your companion as he begins to speak. Evaluate how much you like his face, decide how challenging this is going to be. Often such judgments take only a moment, but define how comfortable you feel. If more than a dozen words wisp by like smoke, save that you can sense their particular rhythm like a train clacking over metal rails, take a deep breath and refocus your eyes. Estimate how essential it is for you to understand. Think about your surroundings.
Lesson Two: Logistics
Let’s start with the cocktail party effect. First described by Colin Cherry in 1953, this selective hearing skill allows people to converse in noisy places by focusing their auditory attention on a single speaker or sound within an excessive amount of background noise.
You do not have this skill, since your cochlear implant magnifies all environmental sounds, sometimes to the brink of physical nausea. But stop thinking about that. Try to get your companion somewhere quiet, since you find the white noise of overlapping conversations horribly distracting. Resist the temptation to fingerspell your name or sign certain things if your companion doesn’t understand you. You’re trying to have a normal conversation, remember.
Inevitably, you will think about how much easier this would be in sign. But recall the instances where you’ve gone out with other deaf people who did not lipread as well as you do, even for minor things like ordering food at a restaurant, and how you’ve felt astonished at your ability to shift between two languages and two worlds simply because you could scrutinize a hearing person’s face. The first time you realized this, you were twelve years old in an ice cream shop at a summer camp for the deaf. Now, as you did then, recall the immense power that you possess to bridge gaps with your eyes.
Speaking of eyes, be sure to take care of them. They are your most valuable tools. Give them a rest from time to time, recognize when the muscles wear out and the edge dulls from the ocular nerves, ceaselessly firing action potentials to your brain. Pay attention to the lighting in your environment. Good lighting is essential; without it your eyes flounder and you feel swept out to sea. Glaring indoor fluorescents are bright enough, but leave you staggering in near-blindness. Romantic dinner restaurants with low light may have good food and ambiance, but the conversation often takes a nosedive. Spotlights or lamps are helpful, but shroud the far side of a person’s face in shadow. You hate it when the sun dips and glares into your face, reducing everything to silhouette. But soft or muted outdoor light, on the contrary, is perfect.
Start settling into your companion’s distinctive spoken nuances. Hope in advance that she (or he) doesn’t have a foreign accent, or it’s all over. People from other countries, or even other parts of the United States, don’t just sound different; they move their mouths differently. Your brain will do headstands if you find yourself conversing with someone from, say, Singapore. You never felt completely comfortable conversing with the international students in your college freshman dorm, except for that one perceptive guy who typed to you on his smartphone. You remember despairing over the accents while studying abroad in the UK, where even asking for eggs at the store could be an ordeal. If faced with an accent, prepare to assess, reassess, adjust, second-guess, and finally run with what you think you saw. Even if that resembles a cryptoquip cipher puzzle.
Try to avoid certain situations like driving, when you wish you could tear one eye out to watch the road while the other strains to blink at the passenger seat, all while visualizing a crash with an oncoming semitruck. Recall how afraid you were to start driving for this reason, how frustrated you got when your passenger tried to give you directions. But, for conversational purposes, even worse is sitting in the back seat, when you can just feel the dialogue floating to the front of the car, away from you, as if you’ve been shut in a box. Even after years, this kind of isolation is something you cannot stand.
Lesson Three: Strategy
Smile courteously at the questions your companion asks about lipreading, once he realizes that’s what you’re doing. You learned through practice, because you had to.
More vocabulary: the McGurk effect, a 1970s experiment in which participants viewed a video of human lips pronouncing the sound “g,” at the same time as they heard the sound “b” – yet reported not hearing either “g” or “b,” but the intermediate sound “d.” To you, this example of multimodal processing is evidence that hearing people do lipread, even if they do not realize it. Thank your companion when he tells you that your lipreading is impressive, even while privately thinking that hearing people could do it too.
Rub your eyes when they start to blur, look away for a moment. When you get too tired of asking your companion to repeat a question, resort to your usual cop-out response of “Oh, I don’t know.” Recall one moment in first grade when you answered a classmate’s question this way after she had asked what your name was. Remember how mortified you felt afterwards, and think of how frightening incomprehension is for a child without a grounded sense of self. Pretended ignorance has its dangers, but ignorance is a line that you must toe. If your companion tells a joke and you miss the punch line – as you inevitably will, because it’ll snap by too fast for you to see – paste on a smile and chuckle appreciatively.
Try to keep the conversation constrained. Steer your companion toward a closed set in which you will be more able to anticipate his or her responses. Even if you despise small talk, rest knowing that this predetermined category will help the conversation flow better, will help keep you from second-guessing yourself. An open set, in which anything is possible, frightens as well as fascinates you with the unpredictability of other people’s minds.
If there is something you must do at all costs, it is this: keep the conversation one-on-one. Avoid interactions with a larger group, because that’s where your ability to converse breaks down. Anticipate how it will be: at first like watching a ball volley across a net, but more and more like attempting to grasp every detail of a world championship ping-pong match involving ten people and a dozen balls, in which you stagger away feeling nauseous and obliged to acknowledge that, in this case, the speed of sound does exceed the speed of light. In such situations, you gape and detach and end up walking away. You hate this, but it is not a matter of being fickle, shy, or snobbish. It is a matter of knowing yourself, and it has taken you years to realize this.
One last thing. When your internal batteries start to wear down, when your companion seems more and more unintelligible, resort to guesswork. In the end, that’s what lipreading is. You’ve read a statistic that says even the most skilled lipreaders, across a range of people and situations, only understand thirty percent of what is being said. You believe this figure to be accurate, as you piece together the array of minute facial motions, never quite catching everything, puzzling over routine dilemmas like identical-looking consonants, “b” and “p,” “t” and “d.” Which is it? Fill in a missing word, or a missing phrase, based on context. Gauge, calculate, follow your instincts, make split-second decisions and backtrack when they come out wrong. Plow your way through. Engage in the quickstep, take a gamble, and inhale in exhilaration when you succeed. Attempt to relax, even when you know that you’re clinging to communication while flirting with meaninglessness. Marvel at what a delicate thing human understanding is.
Sigh in relief when a familiar face appears before you. Recognize the way its planes move, the shapes its lips make. Stop strategizing. Talk. Smile and let the words flow over you.Tags: Rachel Kolb