Why You Can Have “Normal” Hearing And Still Can’t Follow a Conversation

Happy men in a conversation but one is having trouble hearing.


Your workplace just transitioned to one of those open-office floor plans. Everyone sits in a communal space, almost like one long conference table. It’s supposed to foster teamwork or something. All you know is that you hate it. Sure, part of the reason is a loss of privacy (you miss your cubicle walls). But the real reason you can’t stand the new layout is that everything is louder now. And you’re having a hard time following conversations in this new open-office setting.

Difficulty following conversations in loud settings is often one of the earliest signs of hearing loss. In fact, it’s such an early sign that many hearing diagnostics will give your ears normal marks. Which means that it’s possible to have “normal” hearing and not be able to hear normal conversation.

Speech Can Be a Challenge

Speech is one of the most complex sounds your brain will ever have to make sense of. Translating random noises into language takes a lot of brainpower. And even more power is required when you have to focus on one voice over a cacophony of others. Luckily, when your hearing is operating at maximum capacity, your brain gets all kinds of data to work with.

But as your hearing starts to fade, the task of elevating one voice above others can become a little more challenging. You might find that settings such as noisy restaurants or busy offices can suddenly become quite draining.

This very early sign of hearing loss could present in a number of different ways:

  • Most simply, you may have a hard time hearing a conversation in a noisy environment.
  • It may require more concentration to hear what’s being said; as a result, you may feel more fatigued or drained by the time you get home.
  • Your attention may wander. If you can’t hear what’s being said or you have to concentrate really hard to follow the conversation, you may find yourself more engaged by Twitter than dinner.

How Can You Detect This?

It’s hard to know when you’re having a hard time following a conversation because you didn’t get enough sleep last night or because your hearing is getting worse. And if all the typical diagnostics return with “normal” results, you may tend to believe it’s nothing to worry about (at least, until it gets worse).

Researchers have developed early versions of two tests that may be able to detect this early sign of hearing loss.

  • The Eye Test: For one of these diagnostics, you wear a special pair of glasses. Think of them like a fancy pair of Google Glass. These glasses can track the movement and dilation of your pupils. If your pupils behave in a certain way, it implies that you’re concentrating a bit harder than usual. So if this tends to happen in crowded or noisy areas, it could be a sign that you’re having to strain to hear.
  • Watching Electrical Signals: In the second test, a device monitors the electrical EEG signals sent by your ears to your brain. (Don’t worry–you just have to wear a special sensor on your head.) If these signals change in a certain way while you’re in a crowded or noisy environment, that could be a strong indication of some problems with your hearing.

Both of these tests rely on data collection in addition to your personal observations. But the hope is that these two novel diagnostics can help detect some hearing issues very early in the process.

Make Your Open Office More Comfortable

There are two big reasons why early detection of even a minuscule amount of hearing loss is beneficial. First and foremost, it gives you some peace of mind. You’ll know why you detest the new open office, for example–it’s not just some kind of character defect on your part.

And second, even moderate hearing loss starts to affect your cognitive abilities. The earlier hearing loss is treated, the better. So detecting your hearing loss before it’s super noticeable is important. You’ll work with a hearing specialist to make sure you have the proper tools to protect your hearing and, where necessary, to compensate for your hearing loss.

If you have “normal” hearing, but you’re having a tough time following conversations, that could be a sign that you’re at the earliest stages of hearing loss. It’s worth getting checked out. It might not be the open office you’re frustrating with–it might be your hearing.

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