Let me read your lips and listen: #itsoktotalk

Good to see that scientists, always so quick to dismiss anything they perceive to be ‘airy fairy’ till they’ve involved a furry creature or two, have finally caught up with things on the hearing front.

Apparently, a series of experiments with ferrets, ‘which hear the same range of frequencies as humans and appear to distinguish speech from other sounds’, (clearly no humans were available that day), has shown that watching someone’s lips as they speak may help the brain amplify their voice.

They’ve also concluded it would be useful if hearing aids could tell which bit of sound you wanted to focus on, so the amplification could point that way, filtering out all the other sounds screaming for attention.

<sigh>

First. How did they KNOW that the ferrets were watching their lips?

Second. Had they left the ferrets to their own devices and spoken to a few partially deaf humans instead, they might have reached this conclusion considerably sooner and saved a few bob. But then I guess, unless it involves a non-speaking animal, it’s not actually science.

Having had all but no hearing in my left ear since very early childhood, my habit – quickly learned by anyone who walks, sits or simply lives alongside me – is to always sit on the left, so my right ear can point towards the direction of sound. Without appearing too obvious.

Sit yourself down on my left side and, unless you’ve first alerted me to the fact you wish to speak to me so I can either watch your lips (especially important in a noisy room), or swivel my head round – a full 180º – to point my right ear towards your mouth, I will appear to be ignoring you. Which, apart from making me seem rude and ignorant, has over the years caused no end of social embarrassment and prompted both extreme rudeness and, thankfully, a great deal of shared humour.

But it could be dangerous too.

‘Watch out for that bus, Jude’, spoken – even shouted – to my left ear on a busy street, on a windy day, when I’m wearing a woolly hat, without the urgent nudge to alert me, for example, might have a very messy outcome.

For the same reason, despite not being as short sighted as some, who drive cars and navigate social situations through a Gaussian blur, I can’t leave the house, or even watch telly, without my glasses. If I can’t see clearly, I can’t hear clearly either.

It’s not so much lip reading – as the easier of hearing believe. More that the movement of your lips, tongue and teeth, the arch of your eyebrows, the dimple in your cheek, combined with the sound coming my way, enables me to hear better, get the gist of what you’re saying. In other words, your words are not just amplified but enriched. Given meaning.

I’ve been fortunate, so far, not to have needed a hearing aid. Great though that these scientists have concluded that the ideal would be ‘if the hearing aid could somehow know what you’re trying to listen to and could then selectively amplify that sound only’.

‘One possible lower-tech solution would be to steer the hearing aid via gaze. If the hearing aid knows where you’re looking,’ says Dr Bizley in the journal Neuron, ‘it could boost sounds from that location.’

Until that day comes, me and my comrades in the one-ear-only brigade (surprisingly, there are a lot of us) will continue doing ‘the dance’, nonchalantly swapping sides as we walk and sit, so we have you on our ‘good side’, and gazing intently at your face as you speak. This latter having the added benefit that we appear to a) be hanging on your every word (which, technically, we are) or b) be entranced by your extraordinary good looks (which may or may not be true. You’ll never know).

Minions chatting listening talking #itsoktotalk
Talk to the right ear cos the other one ain’t listening © leovalente via Pixaby

Speaking of listening: A Conference Delegate’s Tale

There was a time, no-one can deny, when mountain rescue mainly comprised ragtaggle bunches of blokes running up mountains at speed with mahoosively heavy kit strapped to their backs. Scant room for women.

But, gradually, over the last thirty years say, it changed. Kit got lighter. Outdoor clothing got woman-shaped. Women found their voices, proved their fitness, stood their ground, brought a different dimension. Mountain rescue isn’t just about running up hills, of course. It’s still a male-dominated service – just not quite so much so.

And in the wider ‘search and rescue’ community – whisper it softly – women can be found taking up all sorts of roles in what was once the ‘male domain’. Police officers, doctors, paramedics, helicopter pilots and ‘winchmen’, government strategists…

It’s easy to forget how things used to be. But, just when you think things have really changed, something comes along and you realise. That ‘men only’ mentality? It’s still there, in some quarters, lurking just beneath the surface.

I went to a conference last weekend, the first of its kind. Search and rescue personnel from across the UK – some paid, some volunteer – meeting as equals to learn and share.

This long two days representing mountain rescue, was full to the brim with stuff. A succession of intense, informative workshops, a mental – no, make that actual – tick list of people I wanted to meet, talk to, solicit articles from, editor’s hat at full tilt. Faces to put to email addresses. Old pals to catch up with. New friends to make. Notes to write. Mental threads to pull together.

And added to this, a second hat. Shoulder to shoulder with my fellow Rescue Benevolent Fund trustee, Shirley (also female, you’ll have spotted), wearing the ‘wellbeing and mental health’ hat, the pair of us targeting possible links, making new connections, discussing ways forward for this still fledgling charity.

Wall-to-wall networking, in other words – and voluntarily embraced. Exhausting, but fun. The adrenaline keeps you going. And, without exception, everyone I engaged with was both interesting and interested, friendly and approachable, be they fellow volunteers, emergency services or forces personnel, or government representatives.

Until Friday evening arrived and with it my worst nightmare: ENFORCED networking. With a dinner table seating plan devised by pulling 250-odd names from a hat. One by one. A lottery of strangers. That and the fear that whoever sat to my left would just keep talking quietly and earnestly into that ear, requiring me to sit fully swivelled in their direction through the entire meal, focused (as nonchalantly as socially possible) on their face, with the back of my head turned to whoever sat to my right. Which would have been rude.

Well.

I needn’t have worried.

I gather, chatting later to colleagues, that this dinner table lottery proved more entertaining and useful for everyone but me.

Bear in mind that a primary focus of the entire conference was the issue of mental health and wellbeing – in which we were encouraged to ‘recognise when our colleagues were being or feeling isolated’. And, with a #itsoktotalk, we should encourage them to do just that. Talk.

So it was fascinating, after faltering conversation to both sides – initiated by me, I might add – to find myself (the only female on my table), thrust into chilling ‘solitary’.

On my left, a mountain rescue colleague I didn’t know who, with a quick glance over his shoulder, literally turned three quarters in his seat, with his back towards me, physically cutting me out of his conversation in a very final manner. To my right, a medical professional who ceased engaging with me the moment a fellow medical professional sat down on his other side. Not that their conversation appeared very animated once they’d established how far up their respective career ladders they were.

Suddenly, I was back in the ’80s, gatecrashing an all-male dinner. Invisible. The inconsequential little woman. Physically, mentally and emotionally isolated.

So easy now to think oh, I should have nudged my way in, told them they were rude, made a joke of it… I don’t know. Something. But, brain temporarily turned to mush, I just sat there, panicking. Not quite comprehending what was happening.

Looking around the room, everyone else appeared deep in engaging conversation, chatty banter. Hard, sitting at the table, to see where my friends were or where there might be an opportunity to join in somewhere. A free seat. Escape.

I texted a pal who identified his position with a wave and a friendly smile, then passed my way en route to the loo. But his table was full and I couldn’t bring myself to cart my chair across the entire suite, weaving past tables of chattering colleagues, to squeeze my way in. Too attention-grabbing.

So there I sat, for what seemed like an eternity of exclusion (maybe only five or ten minutes in reality, but long enough), before finally standing up to leave that table and the room to make a telephone call home, just to hear a friendly voice. Had Scottie been available to beam me right back to Cumbria there and then, I’d have taken him up on it.

Half an hour later, having sussed out which tables my pals were on, I was back, via a different door, determined to seek out friendlier company. Which I did. Back on the networking horse. Having fun. Result.

Should I be writing about this here? Call it a warm-up for Mountain Rescue magazine, where I also intend to share my thoughts.

Ah but should I write about it there? Might it not ruffle a few feathers? Well so what, in the spirit of bringing these things out from the shadows?

Might those people recognise themselves if they read this? I rather hope so. If it makes them stop and think about their behaviour and how it impacted on me. On so many levels. As a member of mountain rescue, there to do a job (two jobs!), to meet people in the wider search and rescue community, to watch and learn and write about it afterwards. As a female delegate – one of only 40 registered out of 264. Or simply on the level of social nicety. At least have the decency to make polite conversation. And, for pity’s sake, don’t just turn your back to me like a wall. Because – as I mentioned earlier – that’s just rude.

Wasn’t this exactly what that ‘wellbeing’ message was all about, recognising isolation and the emotional power it has over us? As much about recognising it in ourselves as in others, having the courage to talk about how you feel?

Over those two days, there were many fine words spoken about the issue of mental health within the search and rescue community, a great deal of passion and concern, and many good intentions expressed, but actions speak louder than words. We need to do more than talk about what we intend to do, what we should do.

We need to DO it.

Sure, #itsoktotalk. But we all need to walk the walk too.

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