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At a recent ‘do’ I found myself slightly flummoxed. Lifelong lipreader as I am, I’ve come across a few conversational challenges in my time, but this one was a bit of a novelty.

I’m not very tall and ended up literally making small talk with a fellow guest much shorter than I am, who was also somewhat lacking in the old dental department, not something you encounter regularly these days. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to lipread anyone with few teeth, but it’s just a bit awkward: the lips turn inwards, it’s difficult to discern the relative placement of the tongue without clues from the teeth, and it diminishes the contextual clues of facial expression. And it really didn’t help that, looking down from above, the top lip was really a whole lot more visible than the bottom lip, which had receded inwards. I persevered and prayed that my Deaf Nod and Noncommittal Hmm skills weren’t too rusty.

I did explain about my hearing, but somehow it seemed a bit personal to say exactly why I was having difficulty, so I made noises blaming the acoustic environment, which was, in truth, echoey, and the buzz of conversation not helping matters, also perfectly true. In summary, I conveyed two-thirds of the problem to my interlocutor! By contrast, if you’re dealing with a bearded gentleman it’s easier to say that his beard is obscuring his mouth without the potential to cause offence, since you’re drawing attention to a profusion, not a lack, of a personal attribute.

They say no knowledge is ever wasted, and art appreciation skills first learnt when visiting a Picasso exhibition at the age of 14 stood me in good stead on this occasion – bending the knees, staring hard, and inclining my head to one side. Back then it helped the Cubism to coalesce; on this occasion it helped me to perform extreme lipreading!

Maybe it should become a new sport. . . What is your most extreme lipreading moment?

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