She’s Got the Look


The Truth about Mona Lisa

For hundreds of years, many have pondered the source of Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. Bewitched men have marvelled at her beauty, agonizing over why her lips curve so slightly, why her eyes are half-closed. But I, immune to her romantic appeal, know why.

Mona Lisa was hard of hearing. I know, because she is wearing “the look.”

Those of us experienced in the ways of hearing loss recognize in Ms. Lisa the face of one who has tuned out, one who is only pretending to keep up with the conversation. While Leonardo da Vinci painted, he prattled on to Mona about her mysterious beauty that was driving him mad. She sat silently, however, hiding the fact that she had no clue what he was saying! Leonardo was thus passionately driven to paint “the look” that is the essence of one of civilization’s enduring icons.

Yes, Mona was bluffing, just as most hearing people do from time to time, whether we admit it or not. Rather than confess we’ve dropped into the black hole of a group conversation, we adopt a benign look of understanding, with an occasional half-nod that may or may not indicate agreement with what someone is saying. We like to think no one knows our secret – that we’re as lost as ol’ Mona!

The practised eye, however, can tell when a hard of hearing or deaf person is not getting it. Here are a few telltale signs of someone who may only seem to understand you (note of authenticity: I have been caught in all of the following situations):

– The aforementioned Mona Lisa half-smile: noncommittal; somewhere between a bright smile and rigor mortis.
– A single eyebrow arched slightly to indicate interest. But a brow that has been arched for too long should be a dead giveaway.
– Hands tightly laced or folded in the lap. Look at Mona Lisa’s hands. This is obviously a sign of stress. Being cut off from the flow of conversation is not a good feeling!
– The person starts if you suddenly speak directly to them, responding with, “Sorry! I must have drifted off, what were you saying?” It’s very suspicious, especially when they have given the appearance of drinking up your every word!
– He or she has no recollection of a certain point being made, passing it off with, “I must have missed that bit,” even though “that bit” was the central theme of the conversation.

All hard-of-hearing people bluff. Some of us are occasional fakers, but for others it’s a way of life. And while it pains me to see hard-of-hearing people tune out in a conversation, I can understand why they do. Common reasons are denial of hearing loss, not wanting to cause a fuss by asking people to repeat themselves or, the one thing we dread above all else, making inappropriate remarks at the wrong time – a hallmark of hearing loss. Mainly, however, it is the degree of concentration required to understand. Coping with hearing loss takes a lot of energy. Often it’s simply easier to tune out for a few minutes, especially in difficult listening environments.

Once, during a nighttime stroll along a beach with a developing romantic interest, my companion asked me a question. It was dark, the waves were loud, and I didn’t catch it. I’d asked him to repeat himself once too often that night, so I answered, “No.”

He stopped in his tracks. “No?” he asked, dumbfounded. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “this was important.” But by now I’d gone too far: “No,” I repeated firmly.

End of romance. Because I was afraid of looking foolish, I lost something special. The question hadn’t been about the weather, it had been about us, and I blew it by trying to hide the fact I couldn’t hear.

Since then, I’ve become more assertive, even creative, about my hearing loss and what I need to communicate. But this comfort level isn’t reached overnight. From time to time, we all still give in to our inner Mona Lisa. I’ll say to myself, “This is too difficult, I’m just going to let this one pass,” because some situations are beyond my control. I can offer my communication needs, but I can’t force others to adopt better enunciation and eye contact. I can’t eliminate all background noise, or keep everyone from talking at once. At those times, what’s a girl gonna do?

Smile slightly, arch my left eyebrow, fold my hands, and hope like hell that no one asks me a direct question. And who knows? Perhaps someone will feel compelled to paint my mysterious beauty for the third millennium to wonder at.

(Gael Hannan of Toronto is Past President, Ontario Chapter, Canadian Hard of Hearing Association.)

Share with us the lighter side of living with a disability! Send 700 words to: The Lighter Side, ABILITIES, 340 College St., Ste. 650, Toronto, ON, M5T 3A9; fax to: (416) 923-9829; or e-mail:


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