Posted by: jevcat | May 5, 2011

Now Hear This – or Don’t: On Hearing, Privacy, and Cell Phones

This is just a random thought, but: Are all the folks running around decrying the loss of privacy in our society the same ones treating us to the intimate details of their private conversation via “cell yell”? I was startled one day to hear the man walking next to me on the street – a total stranger – shout “What do you mean I don’t satisfy you?!” into his phone. As my Beloved would say, TMI (too much information). Then there was the woman in back of me on the ferry late one Saturday night detailing an encounter she and a female friend had with two men they met in a bar. Or, also on the ferry, the woman one Sunday morning, when I was on the way to church, who proceeded to ream out someone apparently among her nearest and dearest, in a stentorian voice that carried throughout the ferry level I was on with language that would have made a sailor blush. It just makes me wonder.

I am probably not immune to “cell yell” myself. I do have a moderate (or more, depending on how you look at it) hereditary hearing loss which began in my 30s and for which I now wear hearing aids, and I grew up in a household where three of the five members were hard of hearing. My mother and I sometimes had to shout over loud tvs, radios, and sound systems in order to be heard, even by each other (maybe my own hearing loss isn’t entirely genetic, come to think of it), and my voice still tends to rise over the course of a conversation, something I try to be aware of and correct for.

My father, his father, and my brother all had early hearing loss, and the former two always wore hearing aids (my brother abandoned his in first grade because, by sitting in front of the class, he could manage without, and that solved the problem of keeping track of it through gym, recess, basketball practice, and general roughhousing). [What it costs to get one – or the two I require – now is both an outrage and a subject for another time.]

My mother’s father, who lived with us, refused to ever acknowledge a problem. When one of us had grown hoarse trying to tell him something and dared to mention that there might just be an issue here, his response was always the same: “I have to syringe out my ears.” It never really helped. This led me to the habit of always raising my voice when speaking to him and, apparently, transfer this habit to any older male. My best friend’s poor grandfather would jump and grow pale when I addressed a comment to him, and she or her mother would gently remind me I was talking to my friend’s grandfather, not my own.

You lose something when you can’t hear well. I watched my father retreat from the world rather than struggle, and I’ve had my moments of that, too, especially before I got my hearing aids, times when I was tired and just didn’t have the energy to concentrate continually on meshing sound and lip motion, putting together the jigsaw puzzle of conversation – not to mention how tiring it can be both to oneself and one’s companions, to have to come up with continual variations on “I beg your pardon?”, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”, “Come again?”, and the ever-(un)popular “What?”.

One’s world can become very private indeed when one needs to strain to comprehend what others are saying. I watched my father’s isolation and resolved not to repeat it, but, before I got hearing aids, it was a vow which needed continually to be renewed. In the process, I learned how to nod, smile, and confine comments to general responses based on what I had been able to glean of the topic under discussion. Inevitably there were missed cues and misunderstandings, but I managed, not without a certain amount of regret for what I had missed.

I wonder if fear of missing something is part of why we love our cell phones so much, why we listen sometimes even when volume does not force it upon us. I wonder, too, about privacy. We value it so highly – or think we do – but how much do we really have, especially in the wake of the cyber revolution and the advent of social media? And historically, isn’t privacy a relatively new invention?

Prior to the 20th century, most folks lived cheek-by-jowl with one another. In the medieval era, wedding consummations – especially royal ones – were often spectator sports, given the perceived necessity for the bride to be a virgin and the male noble in question to be the father of any resulting child (puts a whole new spin on thoughts of Prince William and Catherine, doesn’t it? They may lack the privacy of us commoners, but they have more than some of their ancestors!) Not to mention that everywhere people shared beds and/or slept in the same rooms (and in many places of the world, they still do) – kind of makes social media look not so bad after all.

Perhaps the privacy so many of us crave is, at least externally, to a great extent an illusion. Maybe the real trick is to learn to listen only to what nurtures us – notice I didn’t say “only to what is really important,” because we all need some measure of fluff and nonsense – and to learn, too, how to carve out a quiet space within, where we can rest and be refreshed, where “cell yell” and the world’s babble don’t touch us, and we can be alone with ourselves and, if we choose, with God.


  1. You gave me a badly needed chuckle with this today! Poor Pa he would literally be blown out of any seat he wasa in when you would turn to speak to him!!!! I vividly remember his face! LOL!

    • He would sort of blink and start back, poor dear, but he never told me to take it down a notch.

  2. I head one young woman, in the pharmacy waiting room at the Army Hospital we go to, deliver in great, pustule-filled detail, all the things that were wrong with her…she was describing her STD and treatment…

    i’ve never come so close to just…vomiting and slapping someone…

    I’m like…”do i NEED to hear about your genital WARTS and odor???”

    makes me wish I had some hearing loss…only so I wouldn’t have to hear it…

    but I am kidding…my husband lives with about 30% loss on one side…all those years in the military, and in combat with no time to find, much less insert, earplugs.

    and great post.

    • Yup. “Best practices” are fine and all that, but wouldn’t most of us rather be alive with damaged hearing? Wearing hearing aids does have some compensations (other than just being able to hear): when babies or children are shrieking nearby, I simply turn them off, in which case they function much as earplugs. And as for the conversation you overheard: “Ewwww!!”

  3. I don’t have a cell phone. Never had one. Never gonna get one. I have stamps and envelops and a nice phone right here on my cherry wood roll top desk next to things called pens. People tell me I am restricted and encapsulated. No, I am free. Free from all the characterizations you describe. A long distance call – well I do need cell yell which in my case means opening the back door and hollering down the block.

    • I never wanted one. But then I found myself in an impossible job situation where there was also no way to make or receive the sort of phone calls one needs to when on a job search, so my Beloved gave me my first cell phone. I don’t use it a lot for calls — I text more than I phone — but it sure comes in handy when meeting people if there’s a miscommunication or something goes wrong, when a tire goes flat, when there’s a medical emergency, or even when I want to let Roger know what ferry I’ll be on coming home or to communicate with my brother who’s rarely near a regular phone and doesn’t always get to his apartment to check his mailbox. I wouldn’t be without one now.

      • Yes, I am thinking of amending my resistance. That dead battery or another little baby heart attack makes it a necessity these days.

  4. Remember when cell phones were new and it seemed that the streets were full of lunatics, shouting at themselves? Now most people seem to be shouting at themselves, much of the time. The new normal?

    • One of my all-time favorite Lily Tomlin bits has become meaningless: She used to say wouldn’t it be nice if we could pair up all the folks who walk the streets of New York talking to themselves to it would look like they were having a conversation. Nowadays you can’t tell the difference between the crazy people and those on cell phones (there is, admittedly, some overlap).

  5. Bluetooths still freak me out. No matter how often I see somebody walking down the street apparently talking to himself, I never get used to it and always have a split second where I wonder if they are conversing with the voices in their head.

    • I may have watched Star Trek for too many years, but the first time I got on a bus and saw someone sitting there reading with a Bluetooth earpiece, the first thing that popped into my head was: “Borg!”

  6. This puts me in mind of the woman who recently spoke loudly into her cell phone for 16 hours on one of Amtraks “quiet cars” (cell phone free zones) despite other passengers asking her to please stop.

    My in-laws and my husband are losing hearing at an alarming rate and cell phone conversations have become challenging to say the least, but they do observe basic rules of social protocol.

    • 16 hours?! I think I’d’ve had to kill her or myself! I once had a phone conversation with an elderly lady customer of the company for which I was working who was so hard of hearing that I had to shout so loud my office-mate had to get up and leave our small shared office and the other staff members outside gathered in the doorway to stare. It didn’t help that one of them started pantomiming funny responses so I had to shut the door on her to keep from laughing out loud while the customer was still on the phone!

  7. Thanks for sharing your blog. It is insightful and enjoyable. You are right. We do not just need “important things”. We need things that nurture us (although I would also call that very important).

    Jennie Martin

    • Thank you, Jennie. And you caught the paradox just right: it’s important to have some things in life that are not important but are — or are important because they’re not 🙂

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