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They say first impressions count, and that you make up your mind about people within a few seconds of meeting them. I think human beings are hard-wired to rely on first impressions, even though with experience you realise that approximately half the time you’re likely to revise your opinion. Some people improve upon acquaintance – others most definitely do not!

It’s true that people express themselves in different ways with different people in different circumstances and through different media. Whether you’re hearing or deaf, it’s still true. I’ll change my signing from BSL to SSE to perhaps cued speech depending on the preferred communication method of the D/deaf person I’m talking to.

Sometimes I’ve been very surprised by the mental image I’ve built up from my e-mail communications and then found that my correspondent is quite different in the flesh. I knew someone who was exceptionally terse in his e-mails; not rude or abrupt, exactly, but it clearly wasn’t his preferred medium. On meeting him I found out that my first impressions of him as a strong, silent, type were off the mark. In real life, he was so prolix it was terribly difficult to get a word in edgeways. I was rescued by someone who bravely took the conversation monologue over. My impression was – before I could hear – that he liked the sound of his own voice and my rescuer told me later that it was literally true: he boomed and droned on and on, drowning everyone else out.

Of course, in face-to-face dealings, as deaf people we have some advantages. Because we spend so much time looking at lips and facial expressions, looking at both content and context, we’re a bit more tuned in to picking up subtle non-verbal cues that people aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes that’s not necessarily false or sinister, just someone deciding to present or exaggerate an aspect of themselves to sell to the person they’re meeting.

As a lipreader, you can glean so much about people – accents, for example, reveal their presence through lip patterns. Hearing makes a huge difference, though. Since I’ve had my CI I’ve been regularly revising my impressions of folk. There are some people whose accents weren’t particularly visible on their lips, but now I can hear them I realise that they have quite a noticeable accent. Others I have insisted sound very distinctive, because you can see the changes in the vowel sounds from “standard English”, only for other people to say the accent is there, but not as strong as I think it is. Though there is an argument here for lipreading being a more perceptive skill than mere listening, because it betrays something the sound alone doesn’t, I now know what they mean. Mind you, sometimes lips and voice marry up totally. Someone of my acquaintance has a flat and expressionless face so it wasn’t really a surprise to find that he had a monotonous voice!

(Before the CI everybody kept telling me that I was going to love the Bear’s voice – so much so, that I started to worry that I wouldn’t and we joked about it. I knew it was a deep bass voice, but that was as far as it went. Luckily I did – discovering you hate your spouse’s voice would certainly be a novelty for the divorce courts!)

It’s also been very amusing to see the strategies that people employ to project a better impression of themselves. Several times I’ve caught somebody putting on a “posh phone voice” – I can hear them change their tone and accent when dealing with people they don’t know. It’s all part of a game to get the other person on side, to impart information or to obtain a better deal or service.

Now I know who employs these strategies, I know a little bit more about what makes them tick, and I’ve got a few more tools in my armoury in dealing with them. Having the CI has improved my people skills, without a doubt, not just in the obvious direct communication sense, getting more of what they say, but in learning more about the different ways human beings project the part of themselves they want you to notice.

What really triggered this post off was seeing a television programme last night, listening to a world expert in my field. He spoke English in a Swiss accent, but underneath the accent it was possible to tell that his English was American-derived, rather than British-influenced. I think previously I would have only noticed his “foreign” lip patterns. In noticing this, it was a shock to realise that I now make assessments of people based on listening observations as well as visual clues. It’s an odd experience, and I guess I’m changing my mind about myself as well . . .

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