Juliet England: Making a meal of it: eating out with a hearing loss

Posted on September 15, 2017

Mmm, eating out, eh? Don’t you just love it? No cooking, even less washing up and the chance to enjoy some quality nosh, with perhaps a drink or two, as you unwind with your nearest and dearest, or catch up with friends. Or get to know someone.

Popping the question? You may well be doing it in a restaurant. All kinds of deals are sealed in eateries, romantic, business and otherwise. What could be nicer?

But if you’re deaf, what is supposed to be a pleasant experience for all involved can rapidly turn into the evening or lunchtime from hell.

When you think about it, most restaurants are seriously hearing loss-unfriendly. Unless you’re exclusively a friend of Ronald McDonald’s, lighting tends to be low (I understand this is meant to be ‘atmospheric’), and there’s often muzak playing at Glastonbury volumes, despite research suggesting that most diners are, at best, indifferent to it. (Interestingly, Pipedown, the anti-piped music campaign, says that The Good Food Guide 2018 includes information about whether or not each place reviewed has music.)

Just as interestingly, according to an Action on Hearing Loss online poll, more than one in three has had a date ruined by restaurant background noise – and the organisation called on eateries to ‘give romance a chance by providing a quieter dining experience’ last Valentine’s Day.

To compound the problems, you generally sit within earshot of neighbouring tables, so people are, probably understandably, reluctant to bellow for the benefit of any deaf members of the party.

Then, unless you happen to already know the waiting staff, there’s a new voice to get used to. Too many times, I’ve avoided lengthy conversations and perhaps settled for something that I didn’t really want to order, because hearing my friends was going to be enough effort, so why create more work?

If someone returns to the table saying what I’d originally requested was ‘off’, my heart sinks. Further interaction will be required. How often are waiting staff trained specifically in dealing with deaf diners? Not often, I’ll wager.

Sometimes, it’s just easier, in the confusion, to nod and smile and say yes, please, without really knowing what food items will be arriving.

In my case, the need for clear communication has added importance, for I have to be gluten-free, not because of some Gwyneth-style fad, but out of sheer medical necessity. Eating the wrong thing by mistake could make all the difference between enjoying a few hours’ hard-earned relaxation and spending the evening enveloped in the bathroom’s cool porcelain embrace. Or travelling home, as I once did, throwing up at various Underground stations and then into a First Great Western brown paper bag.

Anyway, as if all that wasn’t enough to wrestle with, eating out with one friend/acquaintance/spouse/business associate/lover is one thing. Even then, there can be problems. The other Saturday evening I was sitting opposite my dining companion at a table which was so wide, too many of his words were lost.

On another recent occasion, at an admittedly delightful Greek place, my friend and I sat outside at a small table where many dishes were conveyed in afternoon tea-type cake stand towers, almost completely blocking my view of her and making lip-reading all but impossible.

But what if you’re eating in a group, particularly quite a large group? A boisterous birthday party, perhaps, or a raucous hen or stag do? (Most of my lot are mercifully married off or happily divorced by now, but still.)

I quite often find I am not really speaking to anyone and just catching fragments of conversation – while paying an inappropriate amount of attention to the wine. That can mean my voice, never exactly sweet and low at the best of time, goes up a few decibels, causing whoever I’m with to wince and beg me to quieten down.

I’ve also been known to engage the poor bewildered person sitting next to me in conversation for most of a meal, in a desperate bid to play some part in the proceedings, while they are equally desperate to participate in the wider group chat.

The problems are compounded if you happen to be sitting to someone you don’t know. For a time, I regularly accompanied someone to dinners at one of the newer Oxford colleges. (OK, OK, not strictly eating out, I know.)

I would invariably sit opposite my companion but next to a stranger, and it was the done thing to converse in equal measure with your table companions on either side of you. This being Oxford, it was equally not the done thing to discuss last week’s Coronation Street or seek their views on the complexities of the Maria-Aidan-Eva love triangle.

And so I would nod as someone’s thesis on brain chemicals was outlined to me, praying fervently that I would be asked no questions. Then there would be the reception and after-party drinks, at which the hubbub of polite chitchat created yet another conversational challenge.

All of which sounds the most massive whine, not least in these times when so much else seems to be wrong. Dining out, of course, remains a great, fortunate pleasure. But, occasionally, a bit more understanding that an eatery can be a challenging environment for those of us who struggle to hear wouldn’t go amiss.

Read more of Juliet’s articles for us here. Juliet England does freelance social media and PR work for cSeeker.


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