Miss Conduct

Shouting to be heard

Tips for communicating with hard-of-hearing relatives, plus turning down a free vacation.

August 7, 2011

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A number of relatives whom I love dearly suffer from progressive hearing loss significant enough to require the speaker to shout. I find it nearly impossible to do this when carrying on a conversation without sounding harsh and without my sentiments eventually changing to match my voice. How do I maintain a conversational tone when speaking at top decibel J.G. / Sierra Madre, California

How utterly brilliant of you to have noticed that the vocal quality of your speech affects its content! Our emotions affect our physical actions, of course, and the reverse is also true: Fake a smile, and you’re likely to feel at least a little bit of genuine happiness. So it’s not surprising that yelling at Aunt Millie eventually leads you to start feeling, and expressing, the sort of sentiments associated with extreme volume. (I don’t know what those sentiments might be in Sierra Madre, but here in Boston they usually have to do with parking, tourists, and the New York Yankees.)

You can keep your conversations civil-yet-strident with a bit of extracurricular practice. Have you had any vocal training? If not, this might be a good time to try it. Check the theater departments of colleges near you to see if there’s a vocal coach who is willing to work with you. Even one or two sessions can do wonders. (I have taken private coaching in the Linklater method, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.) When you are talking with your hard-of-hearing relatives, don’t merely yell, but face your listener at all times, enunciate clearly with visible lip movements, and use tonal shifts, gestures, and facial expressions to help get your meaning across. Finally, try reading something emotionally complex aloud – Romeo and Juliet if you’re that sort, Eat, Pray, Love if you’re not – and see if you can learn to divorce the sound from the substance.

This all may seem like rather a lot of work, but time spent improving one’s communication skills is never wasted. And you might just have a good time in the process.

For the past few years my in-laws have rented a house on the water, 10 miles from us, and give a week out to relatives. It’s a great vacation for the out-of-towners but not for us. I have to watch my kids in an unfamiliar house, and my husband doesn’t want to take time off from his job. It puts a serious strain on us, and I sense that we’re hurting his parents by not accepting their offer. My husband does not have the type of relationship with them that allows him to sit down and explain things. Should I continue to feel terrible about this? Anonymous / Newburyport

You have my permission to stop feeling terrible – there is no reason for you to move 10 miles down the street for one week out of the year. It’s frankly bizarre of your in-laws to expect you to do so. And exactly what kind of relationship does your husband have with his parents anyway? I can understand a relationship where you can’t say, “Mom, you really shouldn’t be driving anymore” or “Dad, I’m gay,” but a relationship in which basic logistics aren’t considered fit for polite conversation is beyond my experience.

You say that you “sense” your in-laws are hurt by the fact that you’re not taking a week at the house – in other words, they haven’t confronted you about it. So stop worrying. If people want to run their family life on the principles of bad communication, unspoken expectations, and absurd assumptions, then disappointment will always be their lot. It isn’t your fault, so don’t feel guilty.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. GOT A QUESTION OR COMMENT? Write to BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at CHAT Get advice live every first and third Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at

  • August 7, 2011 cover
  • August 7, 2011 cover
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