Advice to Dear Abby

Mortified didn't know how to deal with her hearing-impaired in-laws.

Posted Mar 04, 2014

Abby might have asked for advice from someone who knows. 

I’m a sucker for advice columns. I love Dear Prudie on Slate, not only for her wise and balanced advice but for the totally off-the-wall things people write her about. Wow. Sex fetishes top the list. “Help! My boyfriend wants to have sex whenever I go Number 2!"

I’m also a fan of Philip Galanes in the Sunday Times, whose area is etiquette, Social Q’s. The nervy friend who hones in on an intimate dinner for two. Galanes has the perfect answer.

Recently Dear Abby posted a letter close to my interests:

DEAR ABBY - My elderly in-laws are wonderful, but even with hearing aids, they have trouble hearing. They enjoy dining out often. In order for them to hear us, family and friends must speak louder than normal. In a restaurant, this can be uncomfortable, not only for those of us dining with them, but also for any other people seated nearby.

My in-laws like to ask about and discuss personal and medical matters, and very loudly. If we try to keep our conversation at a reasonable and polite level, they get upset for not being included in the conversation or constantly ask, "What'd he say?"

I feel bad for other diners seated near us who are trying to have a nice meal. What to do?

Mortified at the dinner table

Abby suggested that they ask to sit in a section of the restaurant away from other patrons, where they wouldn’t have to hear the “organ recital,” as she (I think Abby is actually a they these days) put it.

I love to give advice myself and since I know quite a lot about hearing loss, would like to suggest a few things to Morfified.

First of all, as Abby said, everything’s on TV these days, so there’s really no reason to blush at discussion of bodily functions. But still, I get it. How about if Mortified and her hubby offer to drive the in-laws to the restaurant and suggest they get the more personal issues over with in the car.

Better yet, how about a drink at home first where discussion of bladders and prostates can be a little more private. Then at the restaurant Mortified and her husband can bring up Crimea, say, or the Oscars, or the endless winter.

But there are also many more practical suggestions Abby could have made. There are ways to ease conversation for people with hearing loss and it’s a tremendous help for both those with hearing loss and those trying to talk to them. I’ve published my “How to Talk to People With Hearing Loss” before in this column, but I’ll just repeat a few of the highlights.

Most restauarants don’t have less populated areas, and if they do they’re near the noisy kitchen or the bussing area, so sitting there woud probably backfire. Instead try arranging optimal seating in the main dining room. The in-laws should sit with their backs to the wall, in a corner if possible. If the restaurant has curtains and carpets and tablecloths—and no background music —acoustics will be better for all.

Second, make sure that only one conversation at a time goes on. Nothing is harder for a person with hearing loss than a second conversation competing with theirs at their very table.

Look directly at Mother (in law) or Father when you speak, make sure they can see your lips. Don’t talk with your mouth full. If you have a brushy mustache, trim it before dinner so they can see your lips. Don’t flutter your hands in front of your face.

There are also various assistive devices that the in-laws might try, but they’re expensive and often proprietary so if Mother has a Phonak and Father has a Resound, they can’t share the FM amplification system. Low tech is the way I go, and it works pretty well for me.

Finally, urge Mom and Dad to meet others with hearing loss. Find out where the local chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) is, or the Association of Late Deafened Adults (ALDA). They’ll meet others like them who have trouble hearing even with hearing aids, who may be able to make useful suggestions about quiet restaurants and tips that the hearing may never think of.

Mortified has my sympathy. I know it’s not easy to talk to someone with hearing loss. But she can make it a lot easier on herself – and her poor in-laws, who are probably miserable—by taking a few simple precautions.

Finally, there’s always the option of eating at home. You can order out, maybe even from that noisy restaurant. Bladder dysfunction, high blood pressure, cholesterol and erectile issues can all be discussed without fear of offending anyone except yourselves

I have friends in their 60’s who have made a promise not to talk publicly about their health. There’s something to be said for that. It’s hard to do, though.

Here, for the record, is Abby’s answer:

DEAR MORTIFIED - With some of the commercials that air on television these days, from overactive bladder to hemorrhoids to erectile dysfunction and adult diapers, it's hard to believe anyone would be shocked by what's discussed at your table.

However, if possible, ask that your party be seated in a section of the restaurant away from other patrons. If it's not, turn to diners who are overhearing the "organ recital" and say, "They're actually whispering, even though it doesn't sound like it!"