It starts benignly enough. Someone upstairs calls something down to you. You hear a voice, but not the words. You call back, “I can’t hear you.” The voice repeats what they said, louder, but not loud enough. Once more, you reply, “I can’t hear you.” At this point, they stomp halfway down the stairs to yell whatever it was they were trying to tell you. And now they’re mad at you, the innocent bystander.
Having been both the shouter and the shoutee, I can attest to how frustrating it is to have to keep repeating yourself. By the second or third time you’ve said your piece, you don’t care what the answer is, but the person you’re shouting at can’t hear your never mind any more than they heard the original question.
These interactions are rarely based on anything of substance. Sometimes it’s a question like, “Do you know if…” or, “Have you seen my…” But it’s never as important as, “The house is on fire.”
When I was pregnant, we took a class on administering CPR to a baby. Here’s what I remember from the class. In an emergency, do not call for your spouse by name, yell “HELP.” If you call your spouse’s name, they will typically respond, “What?” That will waste precious time. If, however, you holler for help, they will fly to your side to see what’s wrong. (Do not use this method if what you want is help opening a jar. We all know what happened to the boy who cried wolf.)
It’s possible that we get bent out of shape when someone says, “I can’t hear you,” because our inner child immediately suspects there is a taunt implicit in the reply. They interpret the response to mean, “I’m willfully not listening to you.” If so, we need to tell our inner child to chill and let the adults handle things.
It could be that the person who says, “I can’t hear you,” means, “This is going to end badly for me. If you want to talk to me, come closer.” Maybe they would actually say that if they thought you could hear them.
It can be just as hard to hear outdoors. For instance, when you are cross-country skiing, everything you say to the person in front of you falls onto the ground unheard. If the person in front turns their head to say something, you may catch the first few words, but when they turn their head away you’ll have no idea how the sentence ends. If you call, “I can’t hear you,” you’re off to the races.
The next time someone calls to me and I can’t make out what they’re saying, I’m not going to answer. The worst case scenario is that they’ll think I’m ignoring them, and they’ll get mad, which is where we’d end up anyway. Or, they’ll figure out that I can’t hear them and give up. If they really need my attention, eventually they’ll bring their question to me. I’ll be happy to help, and we’ll all have fewer psychic scars.