Strategies for Communicating in Restaurants


Dining plays in an important role in many cultures.  I think we can all agree that we do not eat simply to nourish our bodies.  It is the human connection that seems to be the most important part of dining.  We propose marriage, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, close business deals, and simply connect with friends and family while dining.

Unfortunately, many people with hearing loss cannot enjoy the social benefits of dining due to their reduced ability to communicate in this noisy environment.  Indeed, many simply accept that they will only be there to consume the food and not much else.  Others simply choose to eliminate this social activity from their lives altogether.  This is very sad.

There are solutions, however.  These will depend partly on your degree of hearing loss, and partly on how noisy the restaurant is.  In the chart below I list the possible solutions for the various environments for different hearing loss levels.  Note that I am assuming that you have a hearing aid.  The last line is suggestions for CI users.

Degree of Hearing Loss Cafe(SNR @ 5 – 0) Restaurant (SNR @ 0 to -5) Bar (SNR @-10) 
Mild Hearing Aid with Directional Microphones Hearing Aid with Directional Microphones FM system in Zoom
Moderate Hearing Aid with Directional Microphones Either FM system in Zoom or hearing aid directional mic FM system in Zoom.
Moderate-Severe Either FM system in Zoom or hearing aid directional mic FM System in Zoom FM system in SuperZoom
Severe FM system in Zoom FM system in Zoom or SuperZoom FM system in SuperZoom
Profound FM system in Zoom FM System in SuperZoom FM system in SuperZoom
Cochlear Implant Directional mic on CI or FM system in Zoom Directional mic on CI or FM system in Zoom FM system in SuperZoom

So what are these microphone positions I am referring to?  Well, on the SmartLink and ZoomLink there are three different microphones.  The Omni mic is at the bottom and it picks up sound in all directions.  I never use this position in a noisy restaurant.  The middle microphone is called the Zoom position.  This picks up sound from the front, but not from behind.  The top microphone is referred to as the SuperZoom position.  This is a beam forming microphone that only picks up sound directly in front, but not from the sides or behind.

The SuperZoom and the Zoom microphones are the most effective in noisy environments like a restaurant

The trick to getting the most out of your directional microphone or FM system is getting the correct seat. You want to have the noise that you don’t want to hear BEHIND you.  A lot of people make the mistake of getting a table in the corner and having the person with hearing loss sit in the corner facing the entire restaurant.  This is the WRONG seat.  You want the background noise in your back.  This way your directional microphones, either on the hearing aid or the FM system, cancel out this noise and only pick up the person in front.

So here are the steps I take when going our for dinner.

  1. Try to find restaurants that are already quieter.  Choose restaurants that don’t blast music during dinner.
  2. Ask for a table in a quiet section of the restaurant if possible.
  3. Seat yourself with your back towards the background noise.  The waiter will try to seat you in the corner with your back to the wall.  He means well, but ignore him and seat yourself correctly.
  4. If you are a small group, seat the other people in front of you.  Ideally you should see the people you wish to hear in front of you and that’s it.  This way your microphones are only picking up those you wish to hear.  I then place my FM system on the table about half a meter away from the people I want to hear.
  5. If you are a larger dinner party, this presents a challenge.  You will still seat yourself as I described.  But your microphones will not always be pointing at the person who is talking.  You need to move your microphone towards the person you wish to converse with.

A couple more points to consider.

  1. If I am having dinner with just one other person, I may get his person to wear the transmitter.  But I do so after the waiter finishes blabbing about all the specials and takes my order.  (Some of these waiters seem to love the sound of their own voice because they talk way too much.  Hint to waiters: Less talk and better service = bigger tip from me).
  2. The FM microphones work best when they are as close to the talker as possible.  So place the transmitter on the table no more than half a meter away.
  3. When the waiter brings the food, grab your microphone off the table, then reposition it.
  4. When having Sushi, keep the microphone away from your Soya Sauce.  I have killed a few transmitters from spills.
  5. In large dinner parties, you will still miss out on some conversation because the microphone is only pointing at one or two people at a time.  Yes, this is still a limitation.  But you can either sit at home and sulk, or you can still be partially engaged.

What’s Wrong With Saying “What?”


This post was inspired by a fellow blogger (http://chroniclebionicwoman.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/bionic-woman-on…faking-it/) who wrote about the perils of “faking it”.  It got me thinking of what we folks with hearing loss do when we don’t understand or hear.

Our initial inclination is the say “what?”, “huh?”, or “pardon me?”.  However, many moons ago, when I was in grad school for Audiology, I began to wonder if this was a good strategy to employ.  Or maybe we should try a more effective strategy.

When we fail to understand what has been said, we need to employ a request for clarification (RQCL).  RQCL can be classified into 2 categories; Specific RQCL and Nonspecific RQCL.  The chart below shows examples of the two different types.

Nonspecific RQCL Specific RQCL
What? What was that last part you said?
Huh? Can you please say that again more slowly?
Pardon me? Did you say you were going shopping?
Can you please repeat that? Can you please move your hand away from you mouth and repeat again?
I didn’t hear you, come again? Are you talking about baseball?

As you can see the Specific RQCL either asks the communication partner to repeat or rephrase only a portion of what was said.  Or it requests a change in the manner in which the utterance was spoken.  In either event, we are guiding the communication partner to a successful repair of the communication breakdown.

I had a theory that our communication partners would respond more favorably to Specific RQCL.  So I designed a series of experiments in which people had to rate how they felt about a person with hearing loss after watching a videotape of a conversation between a person with hearing loss and a normal hearing individual.  The conversations were scripted ahead of time to control for the number of communication breakdowns that occurred (Low, Medium, and High) as well as the type of repair strategy used (Nonspecific and Specific).  Subjects then used a semantic differential scale to make the ratings.  Below are just a few of the items from the scale I devised:

Talking to this person would make me feel…

Composed       1      2      3      4      5       6     Irritated

Energetic         1      2      3      4      5       6      Tired

Pleased            1      2      3      4      5       6      Annoyed

Comfortable    1      2      3      4      5       6      Uneasy

Here are the results from the study.  Note that a higher number indicates a more emotionally negative rating while a lower number indicates a more emotionally positive rating.  In other words, we want a lower number.

These results show a couple of things:

  1. When we have a low number of communication breakdowns (less than 25% of the exchanges), people have a more positive reaction to us.  It didn’t seem to matter if we only said “what”.  As long as we don’t do this too often, reactions will still be positive.
  2. When we have a medium or high level of communication breakdowns (greater than 50% of the exchanges), people start to get pissed off.
  3. If we use Specific RQCL, people react more favorably, especially as the number of breakdowns increased.

So what does this mean for us folks with hearing loss?

  1. It is crucial we get the best possible technology to help us hear and understand better so that we can reduce the number of communication breakdowns that occur.  That means having good working hearing aids or cochlear implants with directional microphones and, if needed, an FM system.
  2. Try to use Specific RQCL such as “Can you please repeat the last part”, “can you please slow down” etc.

Listen to the Music Live!


This post is the second part of my description of how I listen to music when I play in my band.

Just a quick review of the challenges I have hearing the music correctly.  Most of you who also have significant hearing loss will likely have these issues as well.

  1. The music can sound muddled and unclear due to the reduced frequency resolution of the impaired auditory system.
  2. Music can sound distorted since hearing aids and cochlear implants cannot always handle loud inputs.
  3. I need to hear my own instrument, while at the same time need to hear the rest of the band clearly.
  4. I need to keep in time.

The latter problem of keeping in time is solved by the platform I made.  See the previous posting for a description on that.

Through lots of trial and error I have come up with a system the finally works for me.  It allows me to hear my bass guitar, while at the same time hear appropriate cues form the guitarist and vocalist.

  1. First my bass goes into my Boss TU-2 Tuner.  Using an electronic tuner has made tuning the instrument a breeze.
  2. Then the signal goes into the Big Muff Pi Distortion Pedal.   I use distortion sparingly, but what I like about this pedal is that it splits the signal into two parts.  A dry unaffected output and a wet affected signal.
  3. The wet affected output then goes into my Markbass 800 Watt Bass Head and speaker cabinets.  This is what the audience hears.  But not me, I only feel this.
  4. The dry signal goes to a Boss GEB-7 Bass Equalizer.  This allows me to shape the signal so that i can hear it better.  I seem to hear the bass better when I enhance the frequencies between 400 Hz to 800 Hz.
  5. Next the signal goes to Boss LMB-3 Bass Limiter.  I need to ensure I get rid of harsh peaks that would sound distorted to me.
  6. The signal now goes into the SansAmp Bass Driver DI to bring the signal up from a weak signal to a line level signal.
  7. Finally the signal goes into the Phonak TX300V Studio Transmitter.  This send sthe signal to me to hear.

But wait, we are not done yet!  I also need to hear the rest of the band correct?

  1. The guitarist amplifier, guitarist background vocals,  and the main vocalist are all being picked up by their own microphones and fed into the PA system.
  2. Their is an auxiliary output on the mixing board.  I adjust the individual auxiliary output volume controls so that I hear the exact amount.  Generally, with the pop music we play, I like to hear more of the main vocalist.
  3. This then goes into another compressor (oddly enough called the Really Nice Compressor).  I then adjust the kneepoint, attack time, and release time so that the loud signals are lowered and the weak signals are enhanced.
  4. This signal also goes into the Phonak TX300V Studio Transmitter.

The final step is blending the bass signal (my instrument) and the rest of the band.  The TX300V is nice in that it has 2 channels of input and a blend control.  I can now belnd and adjust the two signals to my liking.

So that’s how I do it folks.