At one point or another, we have all been in this uncomfortable situation. You are talking to someone at a party, and then had the realisation – you can’t understand a word they are saying. You smile and nod along until they get to what sounds like a question. You ask them to repeat it, and you can’t hear what they say. So you ask again. We all know how it goes from there, and how awkward it gets on the fifth time of asking.
Fortunately, there is a way to avoid this happening. Researchers at Cardiff University have developed a way to maximise your chances of hearing someone at a party on the first try. You don’t need fancy equipment, or to start learning sign language. All you have to do is turn your head.
If you are trying to listen to something difficult to hear, it makes sense to turn your head 90 degrees from it. This is the same angle as when someone is whispering in your ear, or when you only have one working earbud. If you do this, then one ear will get most of the useful sounds, and the other ear will only get un-useful sounds. You can then ignore any sounds from the un-useful ear, and focus on the sounds you want – the words.
However, for speech, the sounds made by the person speaking are not the only useful piece of information. Lip-reading is something we can all do a little bit, without training. You may not be able to follow a whole conversation, but what you can do is tell the difference between small sounds. These are called phonemes.
A phoneme is the smallest bit of sound that has meaning. It’s the difference between bog and bag, or tend and mend. If you miss hearing part of a word you often use the shape of the speaker’s mouth to help you figure out what the word was. This can lead to some interesting illusions, such as the McGurk effect. This is when the same sound paired with different mouth shapes causes you to hear different syllables.
If you want to read someone’s lips while they talk, you have to be able to see their face. Unless you have a very wide field of vision, the best way to lip-read is to face someone.
So, to improve hearing you should face away from someone, and for best lip-reading you should face towards them. Not the easiest things to do at the same time.
To find out which is more useful, the researchers played video clips of Barack Obama speaking to some participants. Over this they played white noise, which sounds like a radio tuned between stations. The participants turned their heads to different angles as instructed by the researchers. The white noise was then made louder and quieter until participants could only just hear what Obama was saying.
Participants found it easier to understand the speech when they pointed their heads away from the speech. The best angle, though, changed depending on where the white noise was coming from.
You might expect that pointing away from the white noise would be best strategy. But, the researchers found that the best strategy was to point around halfway between the speech and the white noise. Not so far that participants couldn’t see Obama’s face, but far enough to have one ear pointed at him.
The best angle to face when trying to hear someone in a loud environment. Picture Credit: Josh Stevenson-Hoare.
In real-life, noise comes from lots of different angles at once. It would be very difficult to work out what angle would be the best all the time. But, if there is one major source of noise such as a pneumatic drill or a music speaker, it can be useful to remember this technique.
It might look a little silly at first, but it could save you from an embarrassing faux pas next time you go to a party. So now you can hear all the details of Uncle Jimmy’s fishing trip with ease. For the third time this year. You’re welcome.