Becoming a Bad Listener: Labyrinthitis, Vertigo, and “Passing”

For the past three weeks I have been sick with labyrinthitis. It started with a bout of vertigo while picking up some essentials at a local pharmacy and has since recurred in various other locations. In the morning, when I stroll for coffee, it feels like I am walking a tightrope. Shelves after shelves of boxes at a local store have made the world spin. A determined trip to Manhattan (for a friend’s film release) quickly transformed into an incomprehensible blur of light and sound. Because of this lapse in cognition I have found myself listening to the world, and my body, in fascinating (although frustrating) new ways. The most frightening moments of vertigo I experienced have followed moments of both visual and audio overload. When I can no longer understand what I hear, panic is sure to follow. Worst of all, even though negotiating my day-to-day responsibilities has become a trial in patience, to most observers, I seem perfectly fine. I have decided to share these experiences because of how well they inform the ways that sound, specifically the practice of listening, informs the process of “passing” as normal in everyday life.

Labyrinthitis is often related to an inner ear infection. When the series of canals within the ear are damaged, a sense of balance is lost. This lack of balance completely skews all visual cues: things look blurry, there is an unsteadiness to things (as if on a boat), bright and flashing lights are extremely distracting . . .imagine being drunk, but with none of the perks. Another symptom of labyrinthitis is an occasional ringing in the ear. For me, this ringing is at its worst when I am trying to focus on a conversation in an environment with lots of ambient noise. For instance, if I try to hold a conversation while walking down the street and several cars pass by, the ringing will begin to overwhelm both the cars and the conversation. It’s like my brain is dialing back the volume of all the sounds around me. As mentioned earlier this is the most terrifying of all the symptoms that I experience – it feels, uncannily, like I am waking from a dream.

One labyrinthitis support site suggested that prolonged coping with the above symptoms in everyday life is, perhaps, the most difficult part of recovery. In an interesting twist they drew on sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1963 work Stigma to support this claim, “An individual carries a stigma if s/he is unable for any reason to fulfil society’s sterotypic criteria for normality – if this deviation is obvious (eg: physical deformity) the person is at once ‘discredited’. Failings that are less obvious or may be concealed (eg: vestibular problems) render the individual ‘discreditable’ in the sense that his/her identity is vulnerable. Whereas a discredited person must adopt a stigmatised identity – a discreditable individual may prefer the effort and risks attached to trying to ‘pass’ as normal to the frank stigma of admitting the attribute.” Has labyrinthitis rendered me discreditable? Although it is tempting to critique the armchair diagnosis above, I believe that it is a valuable basis for theoretical inquiry. What are the risks of acquiring the stigma of vestibular problems? In other words: do I choose to reveal my illness tactically?

Surely, as this blog post attests, I am not too frightened by the stigma of revealing my illness. It is likely to pass in the next few months and I assume that most of our readers are not particularly judgmental. I am scared, however; when I lose track of conversations. Sometimes even to the point that I choose, as Goffman suggests, to “pass” and keep my lapse of understanding secret. As the ringing in my ear grows: I will often keep quiet, smile, and nod my head. There have been several times in recent memory that I have even forced a chuckle, or a short, daft, answer. Often these replies are deliberately vague, peppered with just enough key words to convince my companion that I was listening. At these times, in my head, I am lost – reeling with confusion. I’m trying to figure out where I am (what street is this, how can I get home quickly?), what has triggered this confusion (is it the noises behind me, or the lights ahead?), and if there is cause to be concerned (is this business as usual, or am I about to faint?). I want, at these moments, to “pass” as normal because I am scared of becoming too much of a burden to those around me. My Achilles’ heel in these situations is contingent on my ability to listen, passing, at least, as a good listener.

The sense of stigma I imagine, as a bad listener, is infinitely worse than the sense of stigma I could accrue as a sick individual. Goffman, in 1963, had been writing in a late Fordist economy. As such, the stigma of illness related more to physical labor than one’s ability to socialize and fit in. In these context of illness could suggest an inability to produce; the diseased body set apart from all others. As immaterial and affective labor become valorized in new ways, stigma comes to relate to the inter-social processes of control that form the new societal knot. Chief among these stigmas, for myself at least, is the inability to listen. Listening cues others in to how well one is able to socialize, participate, and contribute to a tight web of everyday activities. When I cannot listen, yes, I am vulnerable. I am vulnerable, mostly, because I am suddenly and inexplicably alone.

The worst part of becoming a bad listener is recognizing how very little is required in a conversational exchange. As noted earlier, vagaries and key words are, for the most part, sufficient. Is there a final irony here, while my ability to listen to and understand others is diminished has my ability to listen to and understand myself increased? Many have argued that mimesis, or imitation, is, in fact, central to the way people communicate. “The whole of human culture,” according to Anna Gibbs, “then, is, perhaps, predicated on imitation, in which difference and innovation are as central as reproduction and similarity” (p.202). This notion sends eerie chills up my spine. Bad listening, is, from this perspective, simply an alternative mode of identity. Words come in through the ear, rattle around for a bit in the brain, and then come out of the mouth with sparse changes and a different order. Where difference and innovation can be considered the bi-products of good listening, reproduction and similarity stem from bad listening.

Perhaps bad listening is not all that bad. Gibbs also suggests that mimetic communication, “is the cement of parent-child, peer, friendship, and love relations” (p. 202). When “passing” for normal, I shift gears. I use my listening instincts to further a set of affective and emotional bonds which are equally important to my everyday life. Listening is central to “passing,” but there is a fine distinction between modes of listening. Listening analytically is the practice of listening in order to decipher, decrypt, suggest and parse new ideas from a statement or song. Listening affectively is, then, the binary. Not a mode which drives conversations, and/or innovates, but one which actively seeks to create bonds of comfort, compassion, and support. Listening for timbre, tone, and vibe instead of composition, consistency and argument.


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4 responses to “Becoming a Bad Listener: Labyrinthitis, Vertigo, and “Passing””

  1. Tricia Urquhart says :

    My goodness I am so glad to have read your blog it succcintly portrays how I have been feeling over the last three weeks. Labryinthitis is very unpleasant and I do feel almost guitly that I have nothing to show for this, This has made me more empathetic towards those who have permanant auditory problems


  2. Sarinne Fox says :

    Very interesting and thoughtful piece! Thank you for explaining so articulately some of the experiences and feelings that come with a hearing disorder.

    If someone with normal hearing wants a taste of the social separation that comes with a hearing problem, go (by yourself) to some place where no one speaks your language and you speak only a few words and phrases of theirs. Yes, you can still achieve communication of sorts, with effort, but you are blocked out of the social sphere in unexpected and profound ways. After spending some time there, you might even begin to feel invisible.


  3. mr. oyola says :

    My mom has been hearing-impaired for many years now and I cannot count the number of times I have suspected her of nodding and pretending to understand and follow what she cannot hear and the many times that suspicion has been confirmed by her later asking a question that she’d know the answer to if she had really been following the first time.

    I have tried many times to explain to her that I think the discomfort of being found out when only pretending to hear is worse than the discomfort she feels admitting that she simply cannot hear well enough to understand a conversation when there is ambient noise or many people talking and the inconvenience of having to ask people to repeat themselves, but considering what you wrote here, maybe I’m wrong and I am not being sensitive enough to the stigma of being identified as disabled.


  4. Andrew Peterson says :

    What a fantastic piece! Thank you so much for this. I’m amazed at your ability to observe and describe the experience of losing your capacity to listen. The way you describe it, it’s as if you’d developed an acquired (and reversible) form of Asperger’s Syndrome. It also has many parallels to the experience of people who have chronic illnesses but who don’t “look” sick. As someone who is coping with Chronic Lyme Disease (an experience I’ve written about a lot on my own blog), I find that the cognitive impairment that comes with the illness forces me into many of the same sorts of awareness (and ensuing binds) that you describe here. Thank you so much for articulating your experience, it’s really helpful.

    Andrew Peterson
    author of “The Next Ten Minutes: 51 Absurdly Simple Ways to Seize the Moment”


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