by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A hard of hearing lady wrote:
I have always been a person that has to have my “space” and feel personally violated if people stand too close (any closer than arm’s distance). I will literally get very uncomfortable, start sweating, panicky, if it is not a situation that I can remedy quickly. I have always thought that I was just an oddball who valued and guarded my “personal space”. A few months ago, I was talking to my audiologist about this and she said this is a very common trait among deaf and hard of hearing people. Have you ever experienced this? If this is a common trait, what is the mind’s reasoning behind it—a defense mechanism, or what?
The amount of personal space you want/need is a individual matter, so each of us may have a different idea as to the “right” amount of personal space we want. For example, one study showed that people who live in the wide open spaces want more personal space than those who live crowded together in downtown New York. This has nothing to do with hearing loss.
However, when you lose your hearing, your ideal personal space both expands and contracts at the same time. Let me explain this apparent oxymoron.
When we lose our hearing, it is true that we generally want more personal space, especially in possibly “threatening” situations. This is because we cannot adequately “hear” the intentions of those around us. Since we can’t trust our ears for early warning signals, our eyes have to take over this job, and our eyes can’t see in all directions at once. Thus, we want people to stay further away so we have more visual warning if they begin to make any “threatening” moves towards us.
For example, at night walking down a street, I don’t want anyone close behind me because they are out of my field of view and I can’t hear them. Thus, in such situations we want a lot more personal space than a person with normal hearing. That’s one side of the story.
The other side of the story is quite different. When we are conversing (and do not feel threatened), we often actually want less personal space so we can hear and speechread people better.
For example, one time I was out in the middle of the prairies (all the personal space in the world), but I still needed to get almost within arms length of the hearing person I was trying to talk with in order to hear her. It was obvious to me that I was invading her personal space, but I needed to be that close in order to hear her. Our needs for personal space in this situation were very different.
In contrast, another time I was talking to a hard of hearing lady in an almost empty arena. We were standing almost nose-to-nose in the middle of the arena having a good conversation. We didn’t feel like we were invading each other’s personal space. You see, our conversational personal space shrinks to fit our hearing losses.
Now that I am getting older I’m having a problem. My ears say I need less personal space—people need to be close in order for me to hear them. At the same time, my eyes say I need more personal space as they can’t focus that close to effectively speechread any more!