Another response to the Living Without Sound mini-workshop, anonymized as per participant request. All participants had normal hearing, and this respondent is a robotics researcher.

My first stop in simulated deafness was the grocery, where I was to accomplish my weekly grocery shopping. I walked into the store, stopped just inside the door, put the headphones in my ears, and started the music. What was fascinating to me was how immediately and completely isolating the loss of hearing was to me. I know that there are many other tools available to me for communication, but I felt cut off from my surroundings and the other people around me. We rely very strongly on verbal communication, and even many of those non-verbal signals are still audible cues like tone and other sounds. I was aware that I couldn't hear any announcements that were being made, I had no warning of people or carts around me, and I found myself moving more slowly and carefully through the store than usual, looking around more often to see what I might be missing. In robotics, we have a term for this - situational awareness. We use it to measure how well a robot communicates information about its surroundings back to a remote operator. If a robot accurately and efficiently communicates a lot of that information, we say that the operator will have good situational awareness, which can mean the difference between driving over a blind hill and driving off a cliff.

Interestingly, some people would still try to talk to me - little pleasantries like 'Hi' and 'Excuse me' just like anyone else. Perhaps they didn't notice the earbuds. Knowing how to speak and, from context, the proper response, I would generally answer them, being careful that I didn't speak too loudly compensating for the music that was drowning out every other sound around me. Yet even when I was quite confident in what had been said, to have someone talk to me and not hear it was vaguely unsettling, and a little awkward. I had this thought of what a fool I would look if I had guessed wrong. These momentary interactions made me quite anxious.

At the checkout line, I cheated a bit in the name of respect. To not be rude, I waited until the cashier turned to address me and took out one of the earbuds. Before she could say anything, I explained what I was doing and asked if she would mind if I left the earbuds in, and when she indicated that was fine, I re-inserted by audio barrier and was again cut off. Being someone who likes to make polite conversation at the checkout, it was very awkward just standing there, and again I found my eyes darting around. Yet this time I was focused on those places that I knew something would be going on - the cashier's face, the card machine, the bagger. This was a structured interaction, and knowing what to expect gave me just the smallest measure of ease. Whether out of habit or some other motivation, the cashier still spoke to me at all the usual times, to cue me to swipe my card, ask if I wanted cash back, wish me a nice rest of my day. Again, it being structured I knew what she was saying, but that awkwardness was still there, and as I wished her a good day, too (being careful of volume) part of me was quite glad to be on my own again.

My next experiment was much shorter; I attempted to drive with the headphones on, and very quickly decided against it. I had just started driving a standard shift vehicle, and had not realized how much I relied on audial cues to know when to shift. Could I have driven with the headphone on? Probably, and it's likely that no one would have died. But my discomfort was so extreme in losing that connection with the machine that I was riding in that I simply would not do it.

Finally, I repeated my experiment from the grocery store at a local specialty foods shop. The results were initially much the same, but as I found myself browsing the wines I came to the sudden realization that I could not ask the advice of anyone! Wine is one of those decisions that I like to discuss with someone more knowledgeable before I make a purchase, or make sure that I'm not missing one of my favorites due to the store's organization. I was frankly surprised by how much the lack of this particular luxury distressed me. I repeated my request to the cashier, and to my surprise, this one knew just the slightest bit of sign language! We were able to have some sparse communication between us, neither of us being truly conversational in ASL, but it was suddenly a much more fun experience. Perhaps this was because, my being "non-hearing" in her hearing world, she was meeting me halfway by trying to coming into my "non-hearing" world, so we were mutually at a disadvantage. The logistics were still difficult, but instead of trying to talk to me, she did things like make the shape of card with her fingers when she needed my ID and pointed to the wine. It was still by no means as smooth and relaxed as usual, but it was definitely better than the grocery.