Take it off!

If we learned anything in 2020 it’s that masks are easy to hide behind. We can hide our face, our personalities, our germs, and of course, our mouths. I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic about how difficult lipreading is when everyone’s wearing masks, but what I’ve learned since then is that you can tell what kind of person someone is by how they behave about their masks.

I’m not talking about politics, although you can certain get a pretty good idea of someone’s politics based on whether or not they’re wearing one. I’m talking about who someone is at the core. People who wear masks in the pandemic ultimately are doing it to protect other people, not themselves. So we’ve already got a good start, mask-wearers are concerned about others. I’m not really talking about that either – I’m talking about who they are when someone says to them, “I lipread, can you please remove your mask?”

There’s usually a moment of confusion, and then understanding. Then there’s one of two responses – pulling the mask down below the chin to speak to me, or instead trying to speak clearer. In these situations, I am wearing a mask myself, so if we go with the belief that a mask is to protect others, there should be very minimal risk to someone removing their mask to talk to me – I am the one taking on the risk by asking them to do so. You can literally see it in people’s eyes when they understand that. Some you can even see that they feel grateful that I think whatever they say is important enough to risk my own health for. (It usually is. 90% of the time when I’m having a face-to-face conversation with someone, it’s in a medical setting.)

The people who don’t want to remove their masks are the people who want to maintain absolute control over the situation. I don’t fault them for not doing so, what I’m asking them to do is not just remove their mask – I’m asking them to do something they’ve been told not to and I’m also taking the control of the accommodations for my hearing loss, rather than letting them decide what they think is best. It’s annoying, but after 20 some years of deafness, I’m used to people doing what they think I need even though I’m outright telling them what I need.

I started seeing a chiropractor a few weeks ago, who has been fantastic about it all. Not only do he and his staff remove their masks when asked, he has expressed sympathy for my situation. I have to take my implant processor off for some of the work he does, so he’s witnessed the microphone and cable getting tangled in my mask (things I’m sure people without CIs would never think about). But he’s also learned along with me, as has his staff. I told his office manager the first day I walked in “I need to read your lips now, but give me a week and it will be fine.” It was exactly a week later when he noticed I was no longer asking him to remove his mask.

All I need is just a tiny bit of sound to work from and I’m good to go. Once I was used to hearing his voice, my brain knew it and I no longer had to see. Now I have full conversations where the staff is not only masked, but I’m face down on a table! This has been a great experience for me to learn that my auditory memory can pick up new voices – it’s not just voices from before deaf or before implant.

I’ve often written about auditory memory and how much it plays into my life. I might not remember why I walked into a room, but my brain remembers voices like it remembers lyrics to 80s songs. The Masked Singer has been great fun for me because the whole thing is an exercise in recognizing voices behind a mask. If there’s a voice I know, I know it almost instantly. Donny Osmond was the first one, it was clear the second that peacock made noise. Wayne Brady, Taylor Dayne, LeAnn Rimes, Dionne Warwick – I knew them all pretty early on, not from the clues, but from the voice. Since I’m pretty out of touch with pop culture, I recognize far fewer voices than I’d like! I’m also good at recognizing who someone is not. I may not know who it is, but if Jenny McCarthy guesses it’s one of the New Kids on the Block, I know just how wrong she is.

This last month due to an interesting contestant I had the ability to watch the UK version – without closed captioning even! What an adventure that was! The first episode I watched was a struggle, but I understood things here and there. By the most recent, I was understanding everyone with no issues (except the clue packages with distorted voices – but there was one I understood with no problem).

There was absolutely no doubt in my mind when Viking sang his first note that it was that voice I’ve been studying so carefully these last 4 years – Morten Harket, lead singer of A-ha. It didn’t make any sense for him to be doing the show and would be completely out of character for him, but there it was. I didn’t see the clue package before the performance, but my friend Simon captured it for me. Again it was instant recognition of the vocal patterns and accent – even disguised I understood every word. When he later sang Take On Me as the Viking my first thought was, “ooh, another version to add to my studies!”

Morten says he did the show because of the lack of control he had with that mask on. As someone who has learned that voice so well, I’m continually amazed by the sheer amount of control he has over it, so I imagine letting go of the circumstances where he believes he has the control was quite daunting. He’s mentioned that his in-ear monitor was failing and he couldn’t hear himself. I laugh, because I know what a crutch listening to yourself can be, as I’ve spent years specifically training myself to NOT listen to myself when I sing. I hope he’s learned that letting go of that control, even a little bit, might just elevate him to another level entirely.

As much as I hope masks aren’t here to stay, I’ve learned so much because of them.

Morten Harket as Viking performs “Take On Me”

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