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.
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4 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Saying “What?”

  1. I can relate. Having a hearing loss and “faking it” has become an art to me with people I don’t know. I’d rather fake it than piss someone off. With my family and close friends, I can easily say “huh?” or “eh?” (As the Canadian in me comes out!) easily. I’m not sure what it is that makes us, or rather me, so scared/worried about making someone mad or ruining the conversation, it’s almost like an inborn social trait where you do anything to keep the conversation going so you don’t have to sit there in awkward silence!

    • I agree. However, it seems that the occasional use of a simple “huh?” or “eh?” is fine. If it increases, we better start using more specific requests for clarification. If breakdowns increase even more, then we really need to look at our technology to see if there is something else we could be using to decrease the communication breakdowns.

  2. Pingback: Hearing during the Holidays. | Deafened But Not Silent.

  3. Pingback: 10 New Years Resolutions for People with Hearing Loss | Deafened But Not Silent.

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