“Bill, there is something wrong with the fan,” I said to my husband, in another room. He walked into the kitchen, tried the cooking spray, and said, “There is nothing wrong with the PAM.” Life has been interesting since we started mishearing.
Mishearing is not the same as not hearing. When we don’t hear a word clearly, we usually fill in the void with words that make sense given the context. Sometimes, we hear part of the word, but not enough to make out the actual meaning. As people age, consonants are harder to hear than vowels. The problem is, consonants are much more important to speech intelligibility than vowels.
Mishearing is different. When we mishear, we are confident we heard what was said. Sometimes we construct elaborate thought processes around what we think we heard, thought processes that happen in a nanosecond. For example, you ask someone what he does for a living, and he responds, “I work with diabetic Jews.”
“Wow,” you think. “There is a business that works just with diabetic Jews? How are Jewish diabetics different from other diabetics? Is it something genetic? Do cultural differences make compliance more difficult?”
“Yes” he continues. “People with diabetes often have poor circulation and need special shoes.” And that is when you realize that he said diabetic SHOES, not diabetic JEWS.
Mishearings aren’t restricted to older adults, but hearing loss increases as we age, so the likelihood of not hearing consonants properly and replacing them with other consonants is higher as we get older, so we do mishear more often as we age. This gives rise to numerous jokes about mishearing, almost always associated with being elderly. Two classics come to mind:
Three old men were going for a walk. The first says, “It’s windy today.”
The second one says, “No, it’s Thursday.”
The third one says, “So am I. Let’s go for a beer.”
An elderly man was telling his neighbor, “I just bought a new hearing aid. It cost me $4000 dollars, but it’s state-of-the-art. It’s perfect.”
“Really?” said the neighbor. “What kind is it?”
What I don’t like about these jokes is that they suggest that mishearing is unique to older adults, and they make the subject look stupid. They use humor to perpetuate stereotypes and are ageist.
Mishearings can occur at any age. Scores of videos document kids mishearing the words to the pledge of allegiance:
“I plejjer legions to the flag of the United States of America, and tunary public, for witches hands, one nation, on a God, invisible, with liver trees and Justin’s for all.”
Although these mishearings may be predictors of later reading and processing issues, the videos make the children appear cute, not stupid.
The most memorable skits about mishearing are from a woman in her thirties — Gilda Radnor— in her iconic role as Miss Emily Litella. Ms Litella isn’t stupid. She is just plain funny.