Communication Practices Hard of Hearing Hearing Loss Misconceptions Personal advocacy Self Advocacy

Incidental Hearing

Incidental hearing is our take on “incidental learning” for those with hearing loss. Incidental learning is often applied to kids but it affects adults too. What is it? Per Effectiviology: “Incidental learning is learning that occurs unintentionally from activities where learning is not a conscious goal.” In this article, they list language acquisition as an incidental learning situation. Think about it, kids pick up all kinds of words, phrases and ideas from adults all the time! 

Children with hearing loss are at a disadvantage when it comes to incidental learning. Julia found this article from Hearing Health and Technology Matters which says: “…children learn more than 80% of what they know through incidental learning. That means they learn by overhearing things around them.” If there’s a hearing loss, the child misses a huge chunk of incidental learning.

Does the learning ever stop?

There’s a lot of information about incidental learning for kids with hearing loss but we, at Hearing Loss LIVE!, believe it still affects as adults. We don’t stop learning from each other, ever. People with hearing loss miss side conversation all the time because we lack incidental hearing. That means we miss ‘incidental information’ all the time!

Green background. 
Text: People learn a lot from overhearing conversations. 
Picture: Outline of half a head with a hand to the ear, then 3 bent lines signifying audio coming toward the hand.
Text: People with hearing loss don't have that ability.

Here are a few examples for a better idea of what we are talking about from a hearing loss perspective:

  • At work. We can’t overhear the conversation in the hallway about possible upcoming changes at work. We might miss a scary situation that happened at the front desk which required security to come and then not know about it until a staff meeting. 
  • At home: We don’t hear the phone ring and we can’t hear the caller’s voice. All we know is someone in the house is talking and assume they are talking to us. We go up to them and start asking questions only to find out we interrupted a phone call. 
  • In public: At the restaurant, with a table full of people. We might be lucky enough to catch what the people near us say but might miss a whole conversation from the other end of the table with information about the upcoming weekend activity. When we don’t know what’s going on, everyone acts surprised.  
Incidental Hearing

Basically, we’ve lost the ability to eavesdrop in our environment. Because our communication is focused we miss all the side stuff. It’s something hearing people take advantage of. Hearing people often assume we got the info. We lose out all the time. This leaves us feeling left out, confused and sometimes angry!  

Julia’s Hearing Partner Perspective

It is important for our hearing partners to understand that NOT hearing side conversation or situational cues affects our HoHs. Making sure they connect with the necessary information should be part of the relationship. Communication is vital in any relationship. It seems like we don’t know why it bothers them. 

At times, I think we may be jealous as the world is a noisy place! What would it be like to cut out extraneous noise around us, to be present and not affected by all the noise? It’s not easy to do with Vulcan hearing. I often find myself bothered or annoyed by the side conversations in my own home. We lack empathy and tend to think, “What’s the big deal?” 

Stop that.

Green background, white hearing loss live logo of three leaves.
Picture: Outlined people. Two people talking behind someone.  (3 people shapes in a triangle.)
Text: If people are talking in the background, it all blurs together for someone with hearing loss. Nothing distinct stands out.

How would you feel if you could NEVER hear that gossip around the water cooler at work? What if you could NEVER grasp what was being talked about at the restaurant? How about missing that group conversation because your back was turned? Basically, ALL side conversations are out of grasp, especially in noisy restaurants. When others don’t fill you in on the incidental hearing missed, there’s no inclusion. There’s more collateral damage to deal with.

Though I believe most hearing people are not intentionally trying to leave the HoH out, the bottom line is we do. In some cases, this causes more grief, sadness and isolation. Whether the conversation is important or only gossip, take that extra minute to fill in your HoH. Take out the eyeroll and make time to include them. If we do that, we take some of the sting out of the loss. Is it going to be perfect? No. Will we forget? Yes. But it’s a simple habit change that creates inclusion.

Chelle’s Hearing Loss Perspective

When am I most likely to miss incidental information? First thing in the morning without hearing aids and especially before coffee! Or when I’m given a specific task during an event and I’m focused on that task. In the car with more than two people. Cars are already a challenge so a lot can be said in the car without me knowing.  “Are you hungry?” I didn’t hear that above the music playing while barreling down the highway at 80 mph. Because I didn’t answer, it might have been a good idea to check in again.  

Hard of Hearing (HoH) people can only focus on one thing at a time. This is a good thing when I’m focused on you while you’re talking. I’m not listening to the conversation behind us or thinking about anything else while you are talking. I’m listening with intention. 

Most of the time, I lose incidental information in group settings. If conversation is flying back and forth between people and I’m not looking at you, chances are I missed all the plans made for that birthday party. Could I have stopped you for more information? Yes, if I knew you were including me in the plans, then I would have stopped you. But, did you get my attention before talking to me? Nah, you were talking ‘at’ me assuming I picked it up with incidental hearing.  

One on One versus Group Situations

For the most part, I do well one on one. There’s less noise and it’s easy to find out who’s talking. Because I do so well one on one, I think some of the hearies in my life forget how hard group situations are for me. A shift happens with a large group. For each person added to the group, the harder it gets to follow. Dynamics change, conversation becomes more spontaneous and it’s more difficult to spot who’s speaking. Voices start to blend.

No, I didn’t hear them talking about the group plans for next week or who’s doing what. Was I looking at you all? No? That’s where it went wrong then.

Green background, white hearing loss live logo of 3 leaves.
Text: To make sure we are included...
Picture: Outline of two people filled in black, facing each other with hands reaching out toward each other. One dialog bubble says "See you Tuesdays at 6:00."
Text: Get our attention, face us and be within 6 feet.

Don’t forget…was it 7 AM when I haven’t put my hearing aids in yet? Did I get a chance to drink at least one cup of coffee? I think most people don’t do well until they’ve had a cup of coffee so that’s just human kindness.

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Learn more with Hearing Loss LIVE!

Join us March 5, 2024 online via Zoom at 6:00 PM Mountain/AZ time. Up for discussion that night, Incidental Hearing. Let’s Talk about it, with captions! Are you already on our newsletter? You’ll get the link to join there. If you have already signed up for one of our workshops, you will get an email a few days before we have it.  What?! You haven’t signed up yet? Do that HERE, on our main website page. Scroll down a bit to find the link.

2 replies on “Incidental Hearing”

Great content. Incidental learning is very important to individuals. If you can’t hear it, you can’t learn it. Just imagine not being able to hear the conversation at school, home, holidays and friend’s house. We miss so much.

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