Social sense: When vision and hearing make it hard to connect

Vision and hearing

Close your eyes and think of your favorite holiday. Let it sink in.  Chances are you can recall specific sights, sounds, tastes and smells. It’s a sensory feast. But, what if one of your senses has changed? What if you notice it’s harder to see in candlelight? Or, maybe you can’t hear the entire conversation at the end of the dinner table. Sometimes the evolution is slow, so we don’t notice differences in how we see or hear.  When that happens, we rely on our other senses to help decode the situation.

How we connect

At our core, humans crave connection. 1 But not being able to see or hear clearly could get in the way.

Widely-cited research studies indicate that the impact of a message in situations where we are forming an opinion about someone may be around 7 % verbal (words only), 38 % vocal (including tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds) and 55% nonverbal. 2,3,4 Clearly those numbers cannot be applied to every situation, but the key crux of the study was to help get at the heart of how people truly communicate and read one another. Ever heard the saying, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it?” Case in point.

So, what does this mean for someone with poor vision or hearing? Sometimes the person may find it difficult to maintain eye contact in social situations or interpret facial expressions. This may lead a listener to draw incorrect conclusions. And while vision loss may have a negative impact on a person’s perception of the world, hearing loss may lessen a person’s mode of communication, which can contribute to social isolation. 5

Taking charge

If you or someone you love is looking for ways to improve social success heading into the holiday season, there are several things you can do to make communicating easier.

  1. Light it up. Avoid situations with poor lighting. People with low vision may struggle to decode facial expressions critical to understanding meaning. Similarly, those with hearing loss may need extra light to observe nonverbal cues.
  2. Listen with your eyes. Give the speaker your full attention. Watch for visible speech movements, facial expressions and body movements. If you have low vision and cannot clearly see someone’s face, you may find it helpful to try to gauge where the person’s mouth is and aim to look just above this.
  3. Be honest. Tell your family and friends about your hearing or vision loss. Be assertive; tell others how best to engage with you and set realistic expectations. Also, ask for clarification when necessary; ask people to rephrase or slow down.
  4. Manage the crowd. Noisy areas can be difficult for those with affected hearing or vision. When someone has poor vision, he or she may rely more on the sense of hearing to make up for the loss. Likewise, those with hearing loss may not be able to discern what is being said. If possible, limit the number of people you speak with at one time, and try to stay within 3-6 feet of the speaker.
  5. Lead the conversation. Initiate topics of conversation based on your choice and participate. Being aware of current events can also help with understanding the conversation.
  6. Keep a sense of humor. Stay positive and relax.

Getting help

While all of these tips can help you manage vision or hearing differences, knowing is still half the battle. If you suspect you may have a hearing or vision loss, there’s good news: A simple hearing or vision exam may help detect even the smallest issue.

Find an eye doctor near you                      Find a hearing provider

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This sponsored content was produced in conjunction with our partners at Amplifon Hearing Health Care, the world’s largest distributor of hearing aids and services.


  1. UCLA neuroscientist’s book explains why social connection is as important as food and shelter. UCLA newsroom, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/we-are-hard-wired-to-be-social-248746. Accessed September 2018.
  2. Is nonverbal communication a numbers game? Psychology Todayhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-words/201109/is-nonverbal-communication-numbers-game. Accessed September 2018.
  3. Mehrabian, Albert, Ferris, Susan R. Journal of Consulting Psychology, Vol 31 (3), Jun 1967, 248-252.http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0024648. Accessed September 28 2018.
  4. Mehrabian, Albert. Nonverbal Communication. Transaction Publishers, 1972. https://books.google.com/books?id=Xt-YALu9CGwC&lpg=PR7&ots=5zJePi8lju&lr&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed September 2018.
  5. The prevalence and impact of vision and hearing loss in the elderly. North Carolina Medical Journal, http://www.ncmedicaljournal.com/content/78/2/118.full. Accessed September 2018.