Another Socially Awkward Moment: Help Please

Being deaf in my right ear makes for some socially awkward moments. They often occur on airplanes, especially if I’m sitting on the left side of the airplane. Planes, even before takeoff, have plenty of background noise, so I often don’t hear people talking to me. I figure if I’ve stowed my stuff and have my seatbelt on, they’ll come over if it’s important.

Well, normally they do. In business class however, they ask you want you want for dinner before you take off. Even though I ask for the right side of the plane aisle, I almost always get the left side of the plane aisle somewhere. Recently, I was in the middle, on the left aisle. The flight attendant had asked the guy to my right, and, I guess, had asked me. I didn’t hear her and kept reading. Finally, she raised her voice, and said, “Ms. Rothman?” I looked up to my left, saw no one, and looked back at my book.

“Ms. Rothman?” louder now. I looked up to the left front and back this time, still saw no one, and thought to turn to the right. There she was, with a pen.

“Did you call me?”

“Yes, several times. Didn’t you hear me?”

“Nope, deaf on that side. What would you like?”

I managed to deflate a perfectly happy person to a sad crumpled shell. She almost cried. I felt terrible. She felt terrible. She told me so. I told her not to worry. How could she have known? It’s not like I wear a sign. I’d already folded up my cane. I don’t look any different than other people.So I told her I had perfect hearing on my left side and that my husband and I fight about the TV volume, just like other people do.

Last week, I was at a salad buffet in  NYC, getting my lunch. A gentleman wanted to move around me, and I suspect by the tone in his voice when I finally did hear him, he had asked me to move several times. “Ma’am, could you please move?” By now, he sounded quite frustrated.

“Absolutely. Let me hang on here, and let me get my cane”

He pushed by me and my cane tripped him because it was over my left arm, pointing out. I heard him mutter under his breath, because by now he was on my left side, “Are you deaf or something?”

I replied, “Caught it in one. But just on my right side. So with the noise in here, I didn’t hear you at all on my right side. But I can hear you now. Are you ok, or did my cane get you?” He just took off, shaking his head.

A few days ago, I went to Walgreen’s to refill a prescription we are experimenting with for my vertigo. Since it’s a monthly prescription, I thought there might be trouble, and when I went to pick it up, the pick-up lady said, “mumble mumble March 18.” Well, that’s what I heard. I said, “I can’t hear you, can you please repeat that?” and angled towards her with my left ear, and I heard the same thing again.

Now here’s where things get tricky. I thought I just asked her to repeat it again. But afterwards, the pharmacist came over, because I still could not understand, and she raised her voice, so I could hear, and explained that my prescription couldn’t be refilled because it was too early. I explained I was leaving the country, she said she would ask for an override, which we got. Then she told me to stop yelling at the pick-up lady. I was surprised. I asked, “Am I yelling at you?” She said yes. I told her I had no idea I was yelling.

The problem with background noise (in the Walgreen’s, it’s music), is that it distorts the total sound for me. I have no idea how much sound there is. I don’t want to yell at people. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable when I tell them I’m deaf in my right ear.

How do I help people realize that I cannot hear on one side? If you have suggestions, I’m all one ear.


14 thoughts on “Another Socially Awkward Moment: Help Please”

  1. Well, you could wear that sign you’re not wearing. ;-)

    Could you conveniently carry a small notepad & pencil? Then you could ask people to write it down when you still can’t hear on the second or third try.

    A funny story: My mother carried a pad and pencil for awhile after she had some throat surgery and wasn’t supposed to try to speak. After a concert, she went up to one of the performers and wrote a note saying how much she had enjoyed the performance. He grinned, grabbed the pad and pencil, and wrote back, “Thanks.” Mom laughed when she told that story, because she could hear perfectly well.

  2. As I see the problem is in being late to tell people that you can’t hear from one side.

    Visual aids to help people:

    I am thinking of an ear ring that could be designed to help you solve the problem of telling people that you cant hear from one side.

    Wearing a dummy hearing aid on one side thats visible enough to people may get them to think they need to approach you in a softer way.

    A combo of a specially designed ear ring and a dummy hearing aid could also be of help.

  3. What is the sitation:
    New people contacting you by voice don’t see that you are deaf.

    >>I see two possible actions you can take:

    A) make sure that people you will meet, know upfront you are deaf at one side. (Isn’t this partly why you have this blog?)

    B) Make it visble to people you are deaf (on one side)

    Depending if you are ok with making a fool of yourself, you could wear a red fake ear over your bad ear.
    Although you might look funny, at least people that try to contact you know what is going on.

    1) More people might laugh with you
    2) People that try to contact you would get that something is wrong

    Question is, what is more wurth to you less 1 or more 2 ?

    As Jeryy Weinberg would say, when you have only 2 solutions you have not thought hard enough.
    I hope someone else come up with a third option so you have a real choice.


  4. Johanna,

    Quite the challenges. I asked my wife who’s a P.T. for any advice. She suggests you talk to a speech and language therapist, if you haven’t already, for help with the difficulty in understanding what’s spoken in challenging environments and for the subsequent loud replies. She also suggested you see a P.T. (naturally) to help with balance. You may have already done all this but just in case… Oh, one more thing, ask the speech and language therapist if you can get a non-functional but visually obvious hearing aid to put on your deaf ear as a visual cue to people trying to communicate to you. Good luck Johanna.


  5. A gentle “I am deaf in my right ear” should be sufficient. I find humor and gentleness goes a long way to diffuse a situation. We tend to rush through our days. It is okay to slow down and really communicate. If you were not responding, instead of getting upset with you,, they could have simply tapped you on the shoulder. Even those of us with perfectly good ears get distracted and do not always hear what is going on. There is a lot of ambient noise to tune out. People get irritated too quickly. The bottom line is that “I am not ignoring you but I can’t hear in my right ear” is your only obligation. The speakers response you can not control. If we all smiled more and cut each other a little slack, life would be less stressful. Good luck trying to change the world. I don’t see an awkward situation but a teaching moment.

    1. I like Nancy’s response. JR, it’s not required of you to always prevent feelings from being hurt. I can only hope the man who tripped over your cane eventually learns some patience.

      All my love,


  6. Here’s a few options:

    1. An ear patch. Analogous to an eye patch, only for your ear. Finding something comfortable might be a bit of a challenge. As an approximation, you could wear a hat that covered your right ear.

    2. Carry one of those old fashioned hearing horns – the sort they used in the 1800s. You wouldn’t actually have to use it. You could repurpose it as a purse.

    3. Wear headphones. Even if there’s nothing coming out of them. As an approximation, you could get one of the B&O bluetooth headsets that have a big ear pad and put it one your right ear. I guess this would be the tech-fashion ear patch. Pricey too.

    4. Dummy hearing aid. Get a big, old fashioned hearing aid (possibly not functional), and put it in your non-functioning ear. This will serve as a visual clue.

  7. +1 to Dominic… I know someone who uses a system like this. You lose directionality, but at least you’ll be able to hear sounds that come from the right.

    I can get you details if you like.

  8. Hi Johanna,

    Not sure I have much more to add. However I do want to identify. I lived without hearing in my left ear for about 7 months and learned what it means to not be able to discern the direction of sounds or to be able to isolate a voice from background noise. I mostly learned to control situations if I could (i.e., avoid meetings in loud places), cop to the constraint as rapidly as I could to save others from frustration or embarrassment (i.e., tell an audience that if they really want to confuse me they could yell out random questions and watch as I look around the room to see where it came from), and acknowledge to myself that I do not have to belittle myself to make others feel okay about themselves — sometimes people just step in it. Recently I heard you can foolproof it but you can’t damnfoolproof it.

    Thanks for your courage, initiative, and example.

    1. Johanna,
      I send you a thousand gold stars for venturing forth into the highways and biways of the world.
      I am deaf in the left ear. What a pair we would make!
      There are a few things that make me feel most comfortable in social situations:
      On entering a room (airplane, street), I quietly and deliberately position myself in a place that will give me the greatest hearing advantage. Sometimes it means sitting in far corners, asking to be re-seated, or jostling for position.
      I say, “I am deaf in the left ear.” if I think it will help a situation.
      Then, knowing I have done what I can, I relax into as much normalcy as possible.
      I mainly balance with my eyes, so–especially at night–I reach out to others for help. It’s amazing how good people feel when they can help.
      Then comes that delicious moment when I rest my hearing ear on the pillow, and float into quiet sleep.
      May those thousand gold stars light your way!
      p.s. Have you explored the Epley Maneuver for vertigo? It’s not for everyone, but a friend of mine had this procedure done successfully in one doctor’s visit.

  9. Johanna,

    Thank you for your example and please don’t be shy to ask for help.
    Now some options…

    1. Let’s just get these out of the way: ear patch, ear horn, and a hearing ear monkey. ;)

    2. Perhaps join a local support group near you?

    3. It appears that you are keeping records of incidents, doing some root-cause analysis, using some preventive/managing/coping strategies, and asking for help. All that is good.

    4. I think what you want is a simple passive dignified visual information radiator that says “I might be hard of hearing”. Perhaps using a little sign language (especially for your stock phrases) as you speak in those contexts would (perhaps) alert those around you to the special situation?

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