Santa Claus may be the hardest person on earth to lipread — or, more properly, speech read.
He is, in fact, a speech reader’s nightmare, thanks to the big, fuzzy beard and mustache that obscure his lips, the tight, padded suit that restricts his movement, and his crinkly, barely visible eyes — all things that keep us from effectively reading his lips, face and body to figure out what he’s saying.
That’s because speech reading involves all these visual clues gleaned from facial expression, body language and the movement of the eyebrows and eyes. We all speech read to some extent, whether or not we are hard of hearing. That’s why even hearing people crane their necks to see a speaker, though they may hear the speaker perfectly well.
This need to see as well as hear has an official name: the McGurk effect, named after one of the British scientists who discovered in the 1970s that we comprehend speech better if we are hearing it in multiple ways. The scientists called it “hearing lips and seeing voices.” You may have experienced it yourself. Think of a Bob Dylan song you heard without understanding all the words. Yet when you listened again while reading the lyrics, the words seemed perfectly clear.
Audiologist Mark Ross, a researcher with the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Hearing Enhancement in Washington, D.C., and a professor at the University of Connecticut, has written that speech reading is helpful because “many of the sounds that are most difficult for people with hearing loss to hear are the easiest to see; conversely, those sounds that are the most difficult to see are the easiest to hear.”
Some people are better at speech reading than others. Some can even do it at a distance. An example of this was British professional speech reader Tina Lannin, who watched the 2011 royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton and disclosed several private conversations to the media. My favorite was Queen Elizabeth’s comment that she wished the couple had decided to take the smaller carriage. (Why, one wonders? Was it too ostentatious? Was it the one Prince Charles and Princess Diana had used? Perhaps it was looking a bit tattered? No clue.)
One of the best, most entertaining explanations of speech reading was done by blogger Cynthia Dixon in a 2013 slideshow entitled, “I hear with my eyes.” It’s not only funny, it includes some great tips for your friends without hearing loss — such as directly facing the person trying to read your lips, being aware of lighting, and more.
As for Santa, there’s not much help I can provide. Just smile and assume he’s saying, “Ho, ho, ho.”
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