PJ Gribbin: Why hearing people should be forgiven their ‘Wonky Moments’

Posted on January 14, 2013

I usually get up and make my first pot of tea of the day at around 05:45. At this time of the year that means that I’ll need to switch on a light – but that didn’t happen this morning. Oh yes, I switched the switch OK, but … nothing. So, what happened next? Perhaps you think that I pondered calmly for a moment and reached the obvious conclusion that the bulb had failed, and that I should switch on an alternative light. Did I heck – I stood bemused, flicking the switch on and off while the reality of the situation slowly penetrated my skull!

I’d had a Wonky Moment – overnight, the world had changed – and it took my brain a few seconds to catch up and adjust my mental picture of what I thought was real into a match with what was really real.

I have two kinds of Wonky Moment – the first kind happens when The World changes unexpectedly (such as the broken-light bulb moment) and it takes time for me to adjust to the new reality. Mostly the change and the adjustment is trivial, but even then there can be a rush of adrenalin and a surge of annoyance – coupled with Wonky Behaviour like flicking a light-switch uselessly … but when – as probably will happen to most of us at-least once in our lives – a policeman, a nurse or a priest suggests that you sit down (a Wonky Moment in itself) then you just know that this is going to be an occasion when you, and your relationship with The World, are going to change forever. Of course Wonky Moments aren’t all-bad – I remember when the Driving Examiner said, “You’ve passed” – I had the shakes for about five minutes … and then there have been two occasions when my wife’s said, “I’m pregnant” – both of those were seriously Wonky Moments!

However, the killer Wonky Moments for me are not when The World changes and I have to catch up, but when The World doesn’t change at all – but suddenly presents me with a new face that blows away one of my previous understandings. It’s these Wonky Moments that I most-often refuse to face up to (it took me a long time to come to terms with the death of the Tooth Fairy) and sometimes my shock will trigger all kinds of inappropriate responses – anger, distaste, denial, withdrawal … you name it.

I clearly recall an occasion from over forty years ago when a good friend popped out a contact-lens in my presence because a piece of grit had found its way into his eye – I was really shocked that he could do such a thing in front of me and in public. (Back then, I’d never before knowingly been in the presence of a contact-lens wearer – and in my mental picture, people that I knew didn’t wear contact-lenses. My world has moved on a bit in the intervening years … I have the scars to prove it!) It was only because I had a forgiving friend with a strong sense of humour that my Wonky Moment didn’t cost me a very strong friendship.

First-times are massive Wonky Moment triggers – somebody with absolutely no experience of something is suddenly pitched into a situation that, to the other people involved, is perfectly normal and routine – and they Go Wonky. How long their Wonky Moment lasts depends on various things, such as their own previous personal experience and the reaction of those around them. Hopefully it ends in fits of laughter and a better understanding all round – but it can also end with somebody getting hurt and regrets on at least one side of the divide. Usually the person that Went Wonky will be embarrassed and ashamed at their reaction, but often they’ll also feel unable to make amends once their new picture of reality clicks into place.

So please, if you can, when somebody discovers that you’re deaf and reacts inappropriately, cut them some slack – it may be your thousandth time, but for them it’s quite possibly their first and they might well be having a Wonky Moment – especially if they’ve known you for some time, learned to care about you, and have built up a mental picture of you that doesn’t include deafness.

Even if they’re near-strangers, the odds are still strongly in favour of them continuing to value you once their Wonky Moment is over and they’ve has a chance to update their picture – but not if your (perfectly understandable) response is to blow them away and change your picture of them from, ‘nice person’ to, ‘narrow-minded idiot’ on the basis of a single moment of Wonkiness (a kind-of Double-Wonky, where both parties lose out).

Of course there are plenty of people in the world whose mental picture is fixed and they won’t change no matter what reality throws at them – we can’t do much for these people except feel pity for them, but most of us – deaf and hearing alike – are willing and even eager to update our picture in the light of new knowledge – and it’s much easier for us to do so successfully if we exchange a bit of empathy while the Wonky Moment passes!

Paul Gribbin is a semi-retired mainframe computer programmer who lives in the East Midlands. When he’s not computing he enjoys short walks – nothing over five miles please – accompanied by various dogs and grown-up children; these always seem to end up at tea-shops and pubs. He also likes reading (mostly science fiction) and during his brief acting career he once appeared as 4th Pleb in a school production of Julius Caesar.

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