Monday, February 18, 2013

Can you hear me now?

I had to laugh when I heard the title of Katherine Bouton's new book, Shouting Won't Help: Why I -- and 50 Million Other Americans-- Can't Hear You.  It reminded me of that classic joke: Q: How do you sell a deaf guy a duck? A: (Yelling) WANNA BUY A DUCK?  But joking aside, it sounds like Bouton's book gives lots of information we will need as more and more of us develop auditory deficits. These days hearing loss occurs early and often, due to factors ranging from extreme environmental noise to personal sound systems that live in our ears.

So how do we communicate when we can't hear -- or understand -- one another? Many of us do not regularly interact with members of the deaf community. But we do try (and often fail) to communicate with people who cannot "hear" us. Volume isn't the only problem. Some people try the ineffective shouting technique with those who don't speak their language as well as those whose ability to hear is limited. Or speakers just repeat what they have said, thinking that eventually they will be understood. I can see why you might do this once -- if there's a chance your listener did not understand because you were mumbling, or the phone connection deteriorated, etc. But repeating the same phrases over and over again (especially in response to an "I don't understand" from your listener) does not further communications.

I had a week of such dead-ended exchanges with "customer service" representatives of my insurance company, as well as "support" departmenets of various companies I have been dealing with regarding all things internet. Some of these folks were responding to me via the ironically named "chat" line where the repetition of written instructions, in response to specific questions of mine, was maddening. Did they just press "copy+paste" each time I posed a new query? My current webhost, on the other hand, is very good at reading my questions and responding. They seem to have been taught the "tricks of the trade." They respond as if they consulted a communications professional.  They engage in best practices to ensure clear communication with their less techno-savvy clients: listen to the question, think about it in your terms, do a quick mental translation, then rephrase the question in language you think the questioner will understand, and ask "is that is what you mean?"

Let's face it, we all interact with people who use words and phrases differently. Each profession has its code, jargon, or just a way of describing things that is particular to that group. Families have buzz-words that non-family members do not understand. Different generations certainly speak different languages. And yet, how often do we assume that just because members of a certain group all grew up speaking English they "naturally" understand each another.

So don't be like the man selling the duck! Put on your thinking cap and make yourself understood.

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