Friday, September 2, 2016

The Lipreader's Stare

The other day one of those silly clickbait articles about body language one shouldn’t use in the workplace appeared in my Facebook news feed. It suggested avoiding a steady gaze at another person standing close by, for that might be taken for an attempt at dominance or aggression.

As a lipreading deaf person, I absolutely need to fix a laser stare upon an interlocutor’s face—especially if that person is a stranger—if I am to understand their speech. I’d never thought about it before, but there have been occasions in which folks suddenly squirmed away in apparent discomfort.

And so I decided to survey other deaf lipreaders on my Facebook friend list to see if they have encountered this phenomenon. Their responses ranged from the brief and flippant to the thoughtful and concerned, and I suspect say much about the kind of people they are.

Think of this blogpost as my lightweight contribution to scientific research into deafness.

L.G.: If the person is talking, no problem. If he isn't talking, it can feel weird.

K.G.P.: Yup, I've had people tell me that it makes them uneasy at first. I think I've subconsciously developed techniques to break that gaze now and then . . . "Oh look, a kite!"

E.R.: that's a tough one—I have not experienced that but have often wondered if my "stare" makes people uncomfortable. I try to look away while people are talking every now and then.

C.G.: I've wondered the same. Turn your head and you miss a key phrase or change in topic. Give a friendly approachable smile and then you find out their mother just died. There's the continuous effort to keep up with the content through watching the other person's body language and facial expressions. That probably does make some people uncomfortable to be scrutinized like that, but there’s not much we can do about that.

D.M.: Oh, that's a great question. I have been told that it makes some people feel listened to! Of course when I hear that I just let it ride, as I am listening but not in the way they probably mean. I imagine that taken to the other extreme it might be unsettling to some. Too, culture plays a role.

C.L.: It depends on the person's cultural background. Many farm workers won't look at me directly when I'm asking questions. Some women, especially in Muslim countries, shy from looking at a male's face for fear of inviting unwelcome advances. Most people get it that I am deaf and need to look at facial expressions and lips and realize that I'm not seeking a personal attachment. It shouldn't be more than “seven seconds too long" a gaze, as Dave Davis once said of his gaydar abilities.

C.W.: I stare at the mouth and I've had people start picking their teeth. I'm usually up front about my hearing loss and tell people I lipread, so I think that makes it okay. People who have bad teeth or cleft lips or whatever are the ones who are most uncomfortable with it, I think.

A.Z.R.: I've always wondered if people find it strange that I'm looking more at their mouth than their eyes. Are they trying to make eye contact, while I'm busy looking a few inches below their eyes?

R.C.: I agree I've made people uncomfortable. Men in particular think I'm overly interested in them. Such big egos they have! Never know what color eyes they have, but always know the state of their teeth.

B.K.: I shift my gaze constantly between the lips, eyes, eyebrows, expression, hand movements, boobs, etc., when someone's talking to me, so it's not like I'm staring.

J.W.: Yes. If the person doesn't know you, you have to be aware of the effect you may have and, if necessary, explain.

F.C.: I think most people find it refreshing—someone is actually paying attention to them! Other people take it as interested and that person may squirm away if they feel uncomfortable about your supposed interest in them (either sexual or romantic).

K.K.: Well, for starters, deaf/hard of hearing folks use eye contact especially for lipreading. It is common courtesy to face someone when communicating. As for staring, we do this at school as non-verbal cues to students to stop  disruptive behavior.  I have always found this useful as students don't like to stand out when called on verbally.

C.P.: It may be disconcerting but with a quick explanation of the need to lipread it's not an issue.

J.S.: Sure. And fuck 'em. 🙂

D.P.G.: That lipreading stare can be so powerful and bring out unexpected responses from increasing the gabbing to freaking out. Over time I’ve tended to not look directly at the person, or to say “No” when asked if I can lipread. It’s a superpower I prefer not to have.

A.D.H.:  I’ve had more positive than negative experiences with regard to my lipreading gaze. It’s due in part to culture—Israelis and Catalans both tend to gaze directly at a person’s face—so my lipreading gaze does not come across as unusual.

S.A.P.:  I would have said that it’s not staring if you blink every so often.

M.T.L.: Yes, I'm totally a lipreader and I've encountered many people who are unnerved by my need to watch them speak so intently, and I also tend to want to get as close as I can (though I don't feel I invade their space) to read their lips.

I've had people physically move away from me because they were unnerved by my concentration on their speech.

I see it more as their problem than mine.  One particular memorable incident was a new neighbor of mine in Atlanta.  I had met Peyton, the wife of the couple, but one day, Dave, her husband, came over and knocked on my door and introduced himself (can't remember what he wanted, I think to borrow a tool or something) and I invited him in and started talking to him standing in the entryway.  He was very unnerved by my standing close and watching his every word, and he physically backed up and got a strange look on his face.  Again, I don't think I was invasive of his personal space at all.

After I got to know both of these wonderful people and Dave realized I couldn't hear (I don't think I told him that day), we talked about our first meeting and how was weirded out by me.  We became good friends.

Most others who have done the same were not people I came to know well.

Now, if someone does shy away for this reason, I tell them right away that I'm reading their lips and it takes concentration and explain, "That's why I'm watching you so intently."

T.S.: I think  you are right about other people feeling uncomfortable with the gaze of lipreading, though with some qualification. I think this feels more threatening when coming from a man. And in fact if one is a woman looking at a man to lipread him, it is sometimes misinterpreted as being interested in him. Which leads to a whole different can of worms.

L.S. I agree. People aren't used to such contact, esp. these days with technology.

T.E.F.: Make sure you have cow eyes.


  1. Thanks for your blog, I too experience uneasiness from people while I am lipreading them. They also look the other way and point as I am asking for directions, which makes it worse and then I have to explain that I am Deaf. Dina

  2. HaHa!I have a different problem with it. I think it depends on where you stand and what you look like: I'm a 66-year-old, old school dyke (I can call myself that, you probably can't) with ultra short hair, flannel shirts and jeans. In other words, the whole stereotype. And I lipread. Very occasionally a straight guy will miss the ah, not-subtle clues and think my rapt attention to face-reading means I'm somehow interested in something way beyond understanding his words. (Sorry, Charlie.) Guys that dense seem to also be pretty unresponsive to the traditional "No, I'm not interested" clues and that can be awkward, but I've never had it be dangerous. But what's sadder is young men who seem to be kind of socially lost and isolated can really misconstrue my attention as something else, and then end up following me around a store (or event or whatever) like little lost puppies. They're so grateful for any attention from anyone, they respond so deeply to just being listened to, it seems. I've finally learned to use a practice I learned in the 70s while wandering around in India: when I'm ready to end the interaction (or send them away!) I shake their hands and thank them for the conversation and wish them a good evening. It conveys that the conversation is over and leaves their dignity intact.
    I also agree that it depends a lot on sex and size and other clues. Men staring intently at women are too often up to no good. Women staring at men's lips can be misunderstood (see above.) Lipreading while black, especially for strong, healthy young men adds a whole additional level to the risk young black men face in our society.
    Thanks for raising the subject.

    I'm not sure why this cracks me up, but it does.

  3. Oops! I'd meant to delete that last sentence. I'd started with that, then decided to give a deeper response and describe my actual experience.