Calling Our Bluff: Using Communication Strategies in Social Situations

By Karen Putz, Illinois Families for Hands & Voices

"The ability to bluff in poker is a coveted skill for those who play the game."

Social bluffing is pretending to hear or understand something that is being said, and behaving in a way that shows you understand, even when you have little or no clue as to what is being said.

Growing up hard of hearing, I bluffed my way through conversations. My ability to discriminate via auditory means alone was poor, so I supplemented my understanding of communication by speechreading. As anyone knows, speechreading is a hit or miss process, with 40 to 60 percent visible on the lips and the rest of it guesswork.

I could pretty much handle one-on-one conversation with relative ease if the speaker wasn't tight-lipped or excessively decorated with hair. For most conversations, I could understand nearly everything being said. Add another person, and the speechreading became more intense. Add in more than three people, and I was hopelessly lost unless I had control of the conversation.

Enter the social bluff: The head nod, the thoughtful smile, or the chuckle that goes along with a brilliant joke. This worked fine - except for one problem: What if you didn't catch the joke even after the third time of extreme speechreading?

I've been asking everyone I know about social bluffing. At first, I got puzzled looks.

Social bluffing? What's that? Never heard of it before.

Everyone knows about social bluffing. We all do it. Social bluffing is pretending to hear or understand something that is being said, and behaving in a way that shows you understand, even when you have little or no clue as to what is being said.

Apparently, deaf and hard of hearing people are experts at it.

"It's a survival skill," says Lenny Kepil, a deaf adult who worked for Lucent Technologies for many years. "It was the only way I could get through social situations without having to ask people to repeat things over and over."

Lenny also recalls remedying a situation where he would happen upon a co-worker in the hallway and have difficulty with a conversation. "In that case," says Lenny, "I would tell them that I am needed in lab (not true) and head out the door or down a stairwell... I would then tell the co-worker to e-mail me and I would get back with them ASAP."

Howard Rosenblum, a Chicago attorney who is deaf, recalls the time he was caught bluffing his way through a conversation. "I was about 14 years old and talking to my dad's friend," says Howard. "I nodded yes in response to what I thought was a question he was asking. My dad was standing nearby and he realized my answer didn't match, so he asked me, 'What did Mr. Smith say?'"

"I don't know," was the response.

Howard's dad was quite upset at the bluff. "Why didn't you tell him you didn't understand?" he asked him. Howard explained that he didn't want to embarrass himself or his dad's friend, and it was easier to bluff than to ask him to repeat what he said.

"As a kid," says Howard, "you're always forced into family situations or social events that you can't control, so you bluff your way through. As adults, we can control the social situations we go into, or we have access to interpreters to provide access to group conversations."

Dr. Carolyn Stern, an adult who uses a cochlear implant, says: "I do not bluff at first. I try to explain to people that I am deaf and what they can do and I can do to communicate with them. Since my speech is good, many people forget that I am deaf. When I am either tired or just tired of repeating, What? What?" or "Could you repeat/rephrase that please?" or "Could you just state the last sentence/word please?" and so on, that is when I fall back on bluffing. Additionally, it depends if it is an important meeting or just a meeting of friends at a restaurant or other occasion."

Dr. Stern continues, "Reading lips and trying to understand people in difficult situations often tires my ears, eyes and brain. Sometimes I just excuse myself for a while and then rejoin later."

Kathy Allen, a deaf adult with bilateral implants, says she rarely bluffs anymore. "I will only do that if I'm very tired or unintentionally misunderstand something that is being said. Instead, I employ Communication Strategies (see sidebar) and this helps me a lot."

In a recent discussion on the discussion list, several deaf and hard of hearing adults shared their experiences with social bluffing. All seemed to agree that the vast majority of deaf and hard of hearing adults bluff their way through social situations. Many of them recalled doing it much more as a child than as an adult.

In high school, I was the Queen of Bluffing. I did it so much, that many students in my school were unaware of the severity of my hearing loss until the school newspaper published a story about me and another student. "I had no idea you had a hearing loss," said more than one student after the article was published.

During the summer, I often spent time waterskiing with my friends. One morning, two guys that I knew casually came over and asked me to go barefooting (waterskiing on bare feet) with them. After skiing around the lake, the three of us were in the water waiting for the boat to return, and they tried to have a conversation with me. Without my glasses, I was unable to speechread, so I tried to mumble my way through. Finally, I had to tell them that I couldn't follow the conversation and explain why.

Later that day, one of my friends came up to tell me that the guys had no idea that I was that "deaf." They knew I had a hearing loss, but they had no idea how much it really impacted me socially until I could no longer bluff.

Bluffing may indeed be a "survival skill," but in some situations, bluffing can do more harm than good. Both parties lose out-the deaf/hard of hearing person misses out on conversation and the hearing person never learns adaptive strategies to assist in better communication. When a child bluffs through a situation, the parent may get a false sense of their child's ability to understand communication, and not realize that the child has been missing out on major chunks of conversation.

Gina Oliva, author of "Alone in the Mainstream," says: "I think bluffing is pretty much an adaptation to an untenable situation. I have worked at Gallaudet for 33 years and have learned so much about what it means to have access to conversation around me. Still, if I am in a situation with a hearing person, like a repairman, or a dentist (just this past week), if I ask him to repeat once and don't get it the second time, I don't bother to ask again. It's just too much work for so little gain. So I just nod my head."

Gina continues, "If.however...for example, I really DO need the information (like with the repairman), I will say "You know, I need my husband to hear this directly from you, so I'll email you, and you can tell me this in an email so I can share it with my husband." If I feel it's information I really need, I'll think of some other way to get it. Sometimes I will ask them to write it down. It depends on my patience on that particular day with that particular issue."

Sometimes bluffing happens unintentionally, as it happened to Tony Abou Ezzi recently. Tony, a college student who is hard of hearing, was talking to a fellow student. As part of their daily departure, Tony responded, "Yeah" to what he thought was the usual end of the day greeting. The very next day, his fellow student asked him, "Did you bring the materials?" As it turned out, Tony had unknowingly agreed to bring materials in response to the student's request the day before.

Jill Wood, a mom of a hard of hearing son, states that Ian is the king of social bluffing. "It was one of the hardest things to teach him to stop doing" says Jill, "and he's never really stopped. We didn't know Ian had a hearing loss until he was over seven years old. By then he was lip-reading very well and socially bluffing his way through life on a daily basis. His bluffing skills were and are so good that no one, not even his pediatrician, had a clue that he couldn't hear."
"He has an interesting technique which he started doing before we knew of his hearing loss," she continues. "Rather than ask someone to literally repeat something, which often becomes an embarrassed 'Oh, I forgot you can't hear me," moment, he will ask a leading question to get them to restate what they've said or elaborate on it. I've called him on it a couple times and he just smiles and says "What?" Jill chuckles.

As a parent of three deaf and hard of hearing kids, I've tried to give my kids the skills to manage communication without doing it for them every time. One deaf adult explained that he never learned to advocate his own communication skills because his mom continually stepped in and reminded others of what needed to be done to provide communication access. As a result, he was never assertive about his needs and often bluffed his way through conversations.

Being the Queen of Bluffing for many years, now, as an adult, I've learned to be much more assertive about understanding what is communicated, and I've learned to advocate for communication access. I've employed many of the communication strategies that Kathy Allen, an adult with bilateral cochlear implants, advocates (see below). And I modeled them in front of my kids.

Does this mean I never bluff anymore? No. But it has become a rarity.

And.remember how bluffing is a coveted skill in the game of poker? Well, my bluffing skills came in handy at a recent poker game.

I walked away with six hundred bucks.

Kathy Allen's Communication Strategies


1. Replace non-specific strategies, such as "Excuse me, what did you say?" "Pardon?" and "Huh?" with specific strategies:

  • Please repeat that more slowly.
  • What is the topic we are discussing?

2. Experiment with new strategies:

  • Can you say that another way?
  • Can you write down that word?
  • Can you spell that slowly?
  • I heard you say "--------", but I did not understand the rest.
  • Does that begin with "b" as in baseball?

3. Manage your environment by saying:

  • Let's move away from the music.
  • I'll need to switch seats so the window is behind me.
  • I need the lights turned up more.
  • I need the sound turned up more.
  • I need to move closer to the speaker.

4. Explain your needs:

  • I can understand/hear you/ lipread better if you.
  • I do much better if you speak slower.
  • It is difficult for me to lipread/speechread when your hand covers your mouth.
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