The Friend Is Not Heard



Your softest whisper finds God’s ear.
More volume, and we too can hear.
In Meeting, please be loud and clear.
—From a poster in the Burlington (Vt.) Meetinghouse

Continued good hearing is one of the things I am especially thankful for recently as I celebrated my seventieth birthday listening to music and enjoying relaxed conversations in a roomful of friends.

The flip side of my gratitude for good hearing is my great sympathy and compassion for many friends and relatives who have not been so lucky. It was painful to watch my aging grandmother and later my father become isolated as they progressively lost their hearing. After a while their costly hearing aids were not much help.

When I was in college, I learned American Sign Language (ASL) in order to communicate with a relative by marriage who was profoundly deaf. Having this skill helped me to make other friends among the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in my town, and I considered ASL interpretation as a career option. Ultimately, I decided against a future as a sign-language interpreter, because I finally realized that I could not stop wishing that those with severe hearing disabilities could hear clearly. I wanted them to be able to enter the realms of music and the spoken word that were so important in my life.

My brief time working with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community did have one lasting effect: it made me more sensitive to the frustrations experienced by the many people who have chronic hearing problems. In group situations where I find myself straining to hear what is being said, I am sure that those with less acute hearing are missing a lot more than I am. In such instances, I usually say something on their behalf or encourage them to advocate for themselves.

I have witnessed many audibility problems at Friends gatherings over the past 20 or so years. Some of these challenges are a direct result of having to use bigger venues, such as colleges and universities, to accommodate the large gatherings of Friends General Conference and many yearly meeting sessions. Auditoriums and gymnasiums may be good for amplified stage programs, but I found it nearly impossible to clearly hear vocal ministry during all-gathering meetings for worship before the adoption of wireless microphones in the late 1990s.

Another, less tractable, problem stems from our tradition of arranging chairs in circles for worship sharing, workshops, and discussions. Beyond encouraging more people to participate, sitting in circles affirms our historic commitment to equality. But in groups larger than five or six, it becomes harder to hear everyone in the circle. Those across from us are often too far away for words said at a normal conversational level to be very audible. Those sitting to our left and right can also be difficult to understand because they are projecting their voices away from us, and we lose the advantage of using our visual sense to observe their facial expressions and body language.

Hearing difficulties tend to get worse when we form these impromptu circles in spaces that aren’t designed for low-volume intimate discussions, such as most college classrooms. Microphones, loudspeakers, or other electronic sound devices aren’t practical in these informal small-group settings.

Sometimes we attempt to escape the distorted sounds of indoor spaces by moving outdoors, weather permitting. But being outside brings a host of other intrusions of the modern world for our ears to deal with: the sounds of lawn mowers, construction equipment, air conditioning units sticking out of nearby windows, passing golf carts, or aircrafts flying overhead.

At the FGC Gathering in 2001, I was in a morning workshop that had been assigned to a classroom with multiple acoustical defects: hard walls and a floor that echoed, a noisy HVAC system, and loud hammering and sawing from construction workers next door. It didn’t help that one of the workshop co-leaders was soft-spoken. Every time I noticed people cupping their ears in an effort to catch what she was saying, I suggested that she try to speak louder and be aware of her habit of dropping her voice at the end of a sentence.

One afternoon I was walking across the campus and ran into an older man I recognized as one of the hearing-challenged participants in my workshop. When I asked why I hadn’t seen him for a couple of days, he explained he had dropped out because it was just too difficult for him to hear.

I decided it was time to take my concern directly to the gathering staff. First, I interviewed a number of Friends that I knew to have significant hearing losses. They all had complaints about poor acoustics and had encountered much insensitivity to hearing problems at Friends gatherings.

I compiled their suggestions into a simply worded flyer (download the flyer here or see below) designed to be handed out at meetings or posted on bulletin boards. After a few years of cordial but unproductive correspondence, I finally got the opportunity to discuss my concerns with gathering staff. FGC decided to publish a shortened version of my handout to include only in the packets of the workshop leaders.

Earlier this year, I witnessed serious audibility problems in my worship-sharing group at New England Yearly Meeting’s mid-year gathering at the Portland (Maine) Meetinghouse. A soft-spoken woman was interrupted with the plea, “Friend, I can’t understand a word you’re saying. I have a hearing loss, so I need you to speak up!”

A bit flustered, the speaker started over. We noticed her trying to throw a little more force into her opening words, but the volume soon descended to its previous subdued level. The hearing-challenged woman sitting across from her interrupted again, “I’m sorry. I still can’t hear you.”

Insufficient voice projection was not the only problem, however. Another worship-sharing group had been assigned to the opposite corner of the same large meeting room. Everyone had to strain to focus on what people in his or her own group were saying. The ability to hear well was also affected by conversations and footsteps filtering in from the hallway, whirring fans, chairs being scooted, papers being shuffled, and doors being opened and closed. These other distractions may not have been as noticeable, but nevertheless they contributed to a general background noise that tended to drown out whatever was said at ordinary conversation levels.

I have since formulated some steps that a yearly meeting might take in the future to improve the experience of those that are hard of hearing:

  • Determine potential impediments to good hearing in the evaluation of a proposed meeting site. Take steps to mitigate or correct any impediments, just as you would test and debug audio-visual equipment well ahead of a meeting time.
  • Consider providing a handout on better-hearing tips to yearly meeting attendees, similar to the one that is included in workshop leader packets at the FGC Gathering.
  • Identify and reach out to those individuals attending the sessions who have a hearing loss. Solicit their input on how their special needs can be met, just as you would do for people with any other disabilities.
  • Include questions about hearing difficulties in any post-event evaluations.

A more long-term goal would be to teach Friends how to speak as loudly and as distinctly as conditions and other people’s hearing abilities require. This skill is not, however, one that we should expect people to master overnight, any more than we would expect them to learn how to swim by tossing them into a body of water.

Today, electronic sound amplifiers have largely eliminated the need, as well as the incentive, to vocalize loudly and clearly enough to be heard across a large room or even larger auditorium. Ironically, most concert auditoriums today are not designed to be supportive of unplugged performances.

Our resulting vocal flabbiness may be why many people today tend not to speak up for any length of time in a group setting, even when prompted repeatedly. Such a self-imposed disability parallels the way modern mechanical transportation has unwittingly sapped our willingness and physical ability to walk even short distances.

Most Friends don’t measure up well to students of traditional rhetorical arts, who are shown how diaphragms and vocal folds can be used as virtual trumpets capable of reaching the back rows and rising above competing background noise. They are taught to look for cues that the audience may be having difficulty hearing and to regularly ask for feedback on whether their messages are getting through.

Similar voice-projection exercises might be helpful as part of a unit for a revised Quakerism 101 course, organized around the question, “How did George Fox and other early Friends make themselves heard by the multitudes who gathered at Firbank Fell and other outdoor venues when there were no modern public address systems to assist them?”

In order to succeed so well in their evangelizing efforts, early Friends must have taken more seriously the need to be heard in large groups than most Friends do today. I haven’t read much on this topic in historic Quaker journals, but I found a clue while visiting the old, but still used Friends meetinghouse in Brooklyn, New York. A curved sound reflector located above and slightly behind the facing benches ensures that messages from that section are projected across the room. I found other clues in Colonial-era Friends meetinghouses that I visited in the Massachusetts towns of Dartmouth and New Bedford. Their extensive balconies no doubt were designed to conserve heat by making the worship space more compact, and they also make it more likely that vocalized leadings from the Holy Spirit—much like the old wooden ships that carried George Fox, John Woolman, and others on their perilous missions—will sail smoothly from speaker to listener.

Hearing at Quaker Gatherings by Louis Cox

Louis Cox

Louis Cox, a member of Burlington (Vt.) Meeting, has a master’s degree in speech communication from the University of Denver.

5 thoughts on “The Friend Is Not Heard

  1. Teachers, actors, lawyers, singers, extroverts … are among those whom I can still hear … because they enunciate their words, project their voices … do not use unnecessary gestures, cover their mouths … the practice of public speaking is a lost art.

    Quakers tend to be soft-spoken … unless they are teachers, lawyers, etc. My age-related (not much helped by electonic devices) hearing loss …makes large gatherings, meeting for worship and social conversation with Friends a lesson in frustration.

    Thank you, Lois Cox, for bringing much needed attention to this issue!

  2. Our meeting room is small and has hard walls which reflect sound, so conditions are not ideal for listening. We have an assistive listening system, but it only works for some people. To help a dear Friend with an almost total hearing loss, we acquired a disused laptop, and a volunteer sits beside her and types what is said. The screen is adjusted for a big, bold typeface.

    While none of us can catch every spoken word, and typos of all sorts are made, this is such an improvement that we are all happy with the arrangement. That’s an understatement… Our relationship with this Friend has been vastly enriched!

    About half the time, I am the volunteer typist. At first, I was nervous. But I type about as well as anyone, getting three or four words right for each error. My experience of worship is different when I fill this role, but it is not damaged.

    After worship (and introductions, announcements, etc.), I delete what I typed. Our form of worship is so personal and intense that I don’t feel that it should be shared in such a format.

  3. For a short time, the woman who taught me to sign visited the Meeting I was attending. The first time, I was out of town that weekend, and she found that on top of the audio system being abysmal (a high whine, lots of static, and the mics are so far up on the ceiling with no intelligent mixing of active/inactive mics as to be useless), the wheelchair door had been locked. The next few times she attended Meeting, I was there, so I interpreted as best I could. I am not a fluent signer, my vocab wasn’t quite up to it (yay fingerspelling), and it was PSE, but it got through well enough. The surprising thing was how many people came over and started signing with us after Meeting since they’d seen me interpreting…yet it sounded like none of them had even tried to talk with her when she’d come before.

  4. Louis this is beautifully written and right on target. I also dont expect it to do much good. I am not hearing challenged, but still have asked fFriends repeatedly to *speak up* and they do so for at least three or four words before reverting to their *appropriately soft-spoken Quaker voice.* I believe there is a great deal of truth in your point (d) and that people are not at all *conscious of wanting to be understood and not just focused on expressing your thoughts.* One is enclusive and the other actually quite selfish.

  5. This is a great article. Very sensitive discussion that touches on all the challenges we hearing impaired experience. It is very distressing to me how disrespectful of the hearing impaired some are in Quaker Meeting. My home meeting has learned how to speak up though, so I know it can be done. We have a hand held mike set in the middle of the room for people to pick up and speak into. This goes into our FM system for hearing assistance. The proximity of the mike to the speaker means the speech is clear and free of room echos that a hanging mike picks up. Another solution, that I have found (that is quite expensive) is to buy a bluetooth devise with a microphone. This is my own personal devise, made to go directly into my hearing aids. The mike that goes with it is amazingly sensitive. So in most Quaker gathering circles, I can put it near the center and pick up voices within thirty feet. Ideally though, it would be passed around or clipped onto the speakers lapel. In my meeting, I clip it to the big mike that is passed around to the people speaking. As I said, it is expensive, but it has made it possible to hear in almost every situation, even outside. A final suggestion I would like to add; avoid games such as A Big Wind Blows with hearing impaired people present. Even if I can hear the caller in this game, it takes me longer to process the speech, so I am usually last to sit or not sit in this case. So there you go getting laughed at because you are slow. Much too humiliating for me. Thanks for bringing this up!

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