A Little Miss – Bring a Chair

My small niece has a nickname in our family: ‘Little Miss’. I don’t remember how the name came about, but I’d hazard a guess it’s to do with her being funny, articulate, and opinionated (in a very cute way, I hasten to add).

A few weeks ago, Little Miss had reason to be very indignant.

Before she returned to school, we met frequently on Zoom for her to learn sign language. One day, after we’d had a gap of a few days since our last meeting, when she popped up on the screen, I signed, ‘Hello! I’ve missed you!’

Her expressive little face showed disbelief. Then shock. Then indignance. Then puzzlement.

“Aunty Memem?” she signed back. “Why would you say that?!”

I started to explain that I’d said it because I’d missed her and, as I did, I realised. The sign for ‘missed’ is the same as the sign for ‘disappointment’. Little Miss thought I’d signed ‘I’m disappointed in you’.

I rephrased it to ‘I’ve not seen you for a long time, and I’ve missed seeing you’, we gave each other Zoom-hugs, and all was well.

This week is Lipreading Awareness Week.

As a lipreader, I have been in the incredulous position of asking ‘Why would you say that?!’ before realising I’ve misunderstood. It’s a position I occupy quite often, and I have – in the main – learned to see the funny side.

Once, talking about a lunch at church, someone called the lunch a Bring and Share. I said, ‘Why do we need to bring a chair?’ Thankfully, they clarified, and I turned up at the event with cheese and biscuits rather than a chair.

From my experience as a lipreader, here are three things – alongside a sense of humour – that I’ve found helpful. They all begin with ‘P’ which, incidentally, looks like ‘M’ and ‘B’ on the lips (try saying ‘Pat Bat Mat’ while watching your reflection in a mirror).

  • Patience

It can be easy to give up, both for the lipreader and the person being lipread. ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter’ is a common thing for someone who struggles to understand to be told, often after several attempts at understanding. It makes me feel small inside. But I’ve learned that sometimes it really doesn’t matter. Like the time I didn’t heed the ‘oh it doesn’t matter’ and nagged away, finally understanding that what ’didn’t matter’ was the cricket score which, as the speaker well knew, to me really didn’t matter.

After several times of misunderstanding something, I often just say ‘yes’. It doesn’t mean I’ve understood – ‘yes’ frequently turns out not to make sense – but I say it because, with every missed understanding, I feel a bit sillier.

  • Positioning

To state the obvious, lipreading requires the lipreader to be able to see the speaker’s lips. Make sure the light is good, and not behind the person speaking (that throws their face into shadow). Move if necessary. I used to be embarrassed to say, ‘the light has dimmed, and I can’t see you, can we move?’ but now I’ve realised that moving makes for easier conversation for both parties, plus it lessens the likelihood of ‘chair not cheese’ misunderstandings.

  • Phrasing

In the same way I rephrased for my niece, so she understood what I was actually saying, rephrasing something misunderstood by a lipreader is important. I find that, if I am incorrectly reading a word or phrase on someone’s lips, the wrong reading becomes more and more embedded in my mind with every repetition. Often, however, if the meaning is rephrased, I will understand. Yes, I’m afraid speaking for someone to lipread might require a bit of mental gymnastics. All the people who perform mental gymnastics for me in this way certainly deserve gold medals.

George Bernard Shaw said, ‘The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

Lipreading is about communication. And lipreading means that communication is easily misconstrued. Hopefully this little blog offers a few pointers to help with communication. I know there are more, please feel free to comment with your own tips, and also perhaps how lip-readers can help lip-speakers. After all, without speakers allowing people like me to read their lips, Lipreading Awareness Week would not exist.

(For more tips about lipreading, including with reference to masks: https://www.hearingdogs.org.uk/blog/7-tips-for-communicating-with-lipreaders-while-face-coverings-are-mandatory/)

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