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Reading Lips

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Milhouse: What are they saying?
Bart: I'm not sure.
Milhouse: I thought you said you could read lips.
Bart: I assumed that I could.

Characters being able to understand what others are saying by reading their lips. Usually an ability of deaf people, though anybody with good eyesight at least can have it. However, this ability is greatly overstated in fiction where the deaf are concerned, since it's fairly difficult to master and not all deaf people can do it, and even those that can are never perfect. In English, less than half of spoken sounds can be seen on the lips; the rest rely on the throat and tongue movements. That's how we get the joke about how "olive juice" looks exactly like "I love you." This trope is arguably similar to how so many blind people in fiction have Super-Senses, in that it introduces a character with a disability while minimizing the issues such a person would realistically face.

Can be used when two characters want to communicate silently. Alice wants to give Bob a message, so she mouths it to him. If Played for Laughs, then Bob will reveal that he can't read lips, making the whole thing pointless.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Gangsta. features the deaf mercenary Nicolas, who can use his lip reading skills to understand what his targets are saying from a mile away.
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: In one episode, a Tachikoma reads the lips of the Major and Batou as a Shout-Out to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Subverted because they know they're being watched and have their conversation via wireless communication with their cyberbrains and have a fake conversation for the Tachikoma to lip read leaving them falsely reassured that The Major was merely chewing Bateau out for being too much of a Drill Sergeant Nasty and the Tachikoma weren't being decommissioned.
  • Golgo 13: In "Melancholy Summer", Duke Togo reads the lips of a woman who's been waiting for her husband to return for six years. Unfortunately the man is Togo's target, and Togo reads his last words through the scope as he's shot while calling out to her.
  • There's a chapter devoted to Hayate trying to eavesdrop on Saki during an arranged marriage meeting in Hayate the Combat Butler. Even as good as Hayate is at most things, he can't actually read the conversation nearly as well as he thinks. His attempts to interpret what's going on end in disaster.
  • In JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Steel Ball Run, Lucy Steel secretly practices lip reading during her studies and uses it to overhear Funny Valentine planning to dispose of her husband once he's no longer of any use.
  • One Piece: Played for Laughs in the Impel Down arc. After Hancock sneaks Luffy into the prison, he gets once last glimpse at her as she's leaving with the guards and mouths "Thank You." The hopelessly-in-love Hancock mistakes this for "Love You."
  • Spy X Family:
    • Loid Forger aka Twilight is able communicate secretly in public with fellow WISE agents such as Fiona Frost aka Nightfall and Sylvia Sherwood aka Handler by mouthing completely different words.
    • Chapter 37 reveals that Twilight is capable understanding conversations held from afar through lip reading.
    • In Chapter 70, Anya, who used her Telepathy to find out where the kidnappers on her class' bus are taking them, tells her friend Becky she is able to read lips to figure out that information.
  • Soul Eater: Justin Law can read lips, which is good considering he has ear phones on most of the time... but he can't understand Shinigami (without removing his earphones), thanks to his mask.

    Asian Animation 
  • In Season 8 episode 9 of Happy Heroes, Big M. ruins the sound on his Crystal Ball and wants to hear what Happy S. and Smart S. are saying through it. Little M. claims he's a professional at reading lips and tries to lip-read what they're saying, coming to the conclusion that they're talking about their non-biological father Doctor H. since it looks like they keep saying "papa". Big M. yells at him, pointing out that "EVERY CARTOON CHARACTER MOVES HIS MOUTH LIKE THAT!" (the characters in the show have limited mouth movements).

    Comic Books 
  • The Avengers: In Avengers Academy #1, Finesse reads Speedball's lips and learns that the students are there because they are the most likely to become supervillains.
  • Batman: Black and White: In "Blackout", Batman spies on a telephone conversation by lip-reading through binoculars from a building on the other side of the street.
  • Daredevil: Echo can read lips as part of the implication that she's a deaf counterpart to Daredevil. However, the realistic limitations of this skill are still explored, since she has trouble communicating with heroes whose costumes cover their mouths like Spider-Man or Iron Man, and she obviously can't respond to someone if her back is to them and she doesn't know they're talking.
  • Hawkeye: In Hawkeye (2012), Clint loses his hearing again and is shown reading lips. Is a bit Truth in Television since it shows blanks on words he cannot fully read and him guessing words based on context.
  • Supergirl: In the third and final part of The Supergirl Saga, when Pocket Universe Lex Luthor's resistance team has been nearly wiped out along with the people left in Smallville, Lex Luthor communicates to Superman what he wants the hero to do by reading his lips so that the Phantom Zone criminals would not find out. Lex wants Superman to find Superboy's secret lab and use the Green and Gold Kryptonite to put an end to the criminals' threat once and for all.
  • Superman: Superman once used a viewer that gathers "light rays" to see the past. As it's all light, superman had to use lipreading to see what was spoken. There was some oddities like blank talk bubbles from some people facing away from viewpoint. How would he know those people were speaking in first place?

    Fan Works 
  • The Ed/Al Fullmetal Alchemist doujinshi Mute revolves around Edward being temporarily deaf after he protects his brother Alphonse from a terrorist explosion. Ed can read people's lips, but that doesn't work on Al while he's in a suit of armor.
  • Rosario Vampire: Brightest Darkness: As he's almost constantly listening to an MP3 player, Dark typically communicates by reading lips. A Running Gag is that he has difficulty understanding what Mizore is saying because of her ever-present lollipop.
  • In the Law & Order: UK story "Happy New Year", Alesha Phillips notices that her supervisor, co-worker, and a detective are discussing something clandestinely and reads their lips to try and figure out what it is. But although she can deduce what they're saying, she's still confused as to the nature of the conversation.
  • Downplayed with Noel Vermillion in BlazBlue Alternative: Remnant. She's not exactly great at this, but she's better than the rest of her friends due to her Semblance letting her see people talk from afar. During the Vytal Tournament, she was able to understand a bit of Neon's insults to Yang by reading her lips, able to pick up on how she insulted the blonde's hair and called her "top heavy".

  • In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dave and Frank lock themselves in a soundproof pod so they can safely talk about the project computer, HAL, who seems to be acting strange. It doesn't occur to them that HAL can read lips...
  • Casino. The FBI are shown using lipreaders to put surveillance on mafiosi who hold their meetings in the open, paranoid as they are about bugs and wiretaps.
  • In the comedy Accidental Hero while Bernie is Talking Down the Suicidal under the glare of media cameras, a lipreader watching the footage claims that they're talking about religion. Gilligan Cut to Bernie agreeing with John not to reveal he's a fraud in exchange for financing his child's education.
  • Dr. Richardson teaches Belinda the deaf-mute to read lips in Johnny Belinda. As usual in fiction, she gets unrealistically good at it.
  • Listen to Your Heart: Ariana is able to do this very well, as she's deaf plus having grown up with a mother who didn't have her learn sign language nor learning herself. Thus she was forced to for understanding others at first.
  • Two movies in which Charles Bronson plays a hitman — The Mechanic (1972) and The Evil That Men Do (1984) — have the Villain Protagonist discovering information about the mark by watching them through a telescope and lipreading their discussion with another person. The latter movie foreshadows the skill by having a woman complain to her friend how Bronson's character never smiles. Bronson (who's across the room) picks that moment to smile at her, apparently disproving her point. She just says sourly that she knows he can read lips.
  • McCall shows that he can use this in Metro when he relays the conversation between his would-be partner and the chief to them after they had it behind soundproof windows. He gets use it again during the climax when he has to cover Scott during a hostage exchange.
  • In the French film Read My Lips, the protagonist is deaf, and can tell when her coworkers (who are implied to not know about her deafness) talk about her behind her back. Played for Drama when her assistant is kidnapped by the mob he's been forced to work for; he uses her lip-reading ability to covertly communicate an escape plan.
  • In Second Tour, Gus is a big football nerd. He learned to read lips from watching football players insult each other on screen, in several languages.
  • In See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Gene Wilder's character Dave Lyon is deaf and reads lips. However, this only works when people are facing him, which led to his retirement from acting due to missing cues when other actors turned away. He also confuses "shit" for "ship" and (Ayatollah) "Khomeini" for "comedy."
  • Species has a scene where Fitch says "Tomorrow Night We'll go back to the Club". Sil is in a car down the street lip reading him. She'd learned to do that in her Glassy Prison at Fitch's lab.
  • Reader from White Heat is hard of hearing and can read lips. When Fallon talks to his contact during a prison visit, he covers his mouth so Reader can't decipher what he's saying.
  • In Wild Wild West, one of Dr. Loveless's female assistants is the aptly-named Miss Lippenrieder, who is able to do this quite effectively with a spyglass even in darkness.
  • Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon. Detective Dee puts this skill to use when he first arrives in the city, to uncover a kidnapping plot.
  • In ...And Your Name Is Jonah, Jonah is enrolled in a school for the deaf focusing on teaching children to read lips, but despite endless drills, he never makes any progress. Once he starts learning sign language, he becomes better able to understand spoken language.
  • In Psych-Out, the deaf Jenny communicates with people this way. As usual in fiction, she never makes a mistake as long as she can see someone's mouth, but people can talk without her knowing by covering their mouths.
  • In Mandy (1952), this is a major part of the education at Mandy's deaf school. The founder, Jane Ellis, is good enough that most people don't realize she's deaf. By the end, Mandy has gotten good enough to have a conversation with a hearing boy.

  • Pied Piper from DC Super Hero Girls is deaf and can read lips fluently in several languages. Rumor has it that he's been used as a government spy.
  • Double Star: Two spacemen retire to a 'hush corner' of the hotel room to discuss the protagonist. The hush corner cancels out their voices, but as he's a stage performer he's learned to lipread as part of his trade.
  • Encyclopedia Brown realizes that the thief who "overheard" the owners of a barbershop could do so while sitting under a hairdryer because she could read lips.
  • TL Sherred's E For Effort: Two guys invent a machine that can display past events, which they film. However, it doesn't come with audio, so they hire expert lip readers to figure out what exactly the people were/are saying.
  • In The Famous Five book "Five go to Smuggler's Top", the children suspect that the deaf servant Block can read their lips. He is not deaf at all.
  • In Halo: Last Light, Veta has picked up a few tricks from a deaf friend of hers and is able to pick up parts of the conversation between Fred and his superior, including words like "Forerunner" and "ancilla".
  • The titular character of Harry Potter regularly does this. However, the lines he "read" are often the most obvious and logical in the given situation, so he may just predicting what the other person will say instead of actually reading the lips.
  • Hoshi and the Red City Circuit: When Hoshi was first starting out as a private detective, she bought an expensive lipreading program for her navis. It comes in handy when she's spying on people through sensorcams with no sound.
  • In Judge Dee, Tao Gan mentions that among his many skills of questionable legality, he can read lips (it's easier on children and women than on bearded men).
  • In the book A Maidens Grave, a girl only realizes she's going deaf and reading lips to compensate when she "mishears" "Amazing Grace" as "A Maiden's Grave".
  • At one point in The Malloreon, the heroes have to come up with fairly elaborate ways to hide what they're saying in a city of spies; they've learned that some of the spies are deaf and read lips, so just masking their voices isn't going to work. They take to meeting at night.
  • In The Mermaid of Black Conch, the deaf boy Reggie Rain reads lips in Black Conch English and reads books in Standard English.
  • The titular character of Mike Hammer keeps bumping into a deaf man outside police headquarters, and eventually works out he's being used to pass on information on impending raids from a Dirty Cop who's under surveillance; the cop would pretend to be chewing gum while actually be mouthing the location of their next target.
  • Epic Fail version in Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse: when Natalie talks to firefighter Joe Cochran about the death of Cochran's dog Sparky, Monk stays back because Cochran is feeding some cats and he has allergies. He says he can lip-read, but when he is asked if he got everything, what he claims to have heard is nothing like the conversation.
  • In Podkayne of Mars, the title character and her younger brother have been kidnapped. Suspecting their captor might be bugging the room they're in, they plan their escape this way (though that doesn't explain how their 'conversation' is recorded on Podkayne's diary recorder).
  • Nick in The Stand is deaf and mute, but his ability to read lips allows him to understand anything people are saying as long as he's looking at them. Unfortunately, for much of the story he's traveling with Tom, a mentally retarded man who can't read. While Nick can understand him just fine, he can't communicate anything complex to Tom.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • In The New Rebellion, both Luke and Leia prove to be able to do this.
    • In Galaxy of Fear, Tash tries her best to make Zak understand that they're inside a biological weapons plant, but even when she mouths it slowly, he doesn't get it.
  • Tortall Universe
    • In Protector of the Small, Neal learned how to read lips at university purely because he's nosy and wanted to know what the professors were talking about.
    • Aly in the Trickster's Duet can do this thanks to her spy training, and her magical Sight allows her to "zoom" even on distant individuals.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Accused (2023): Discussed in "Ava's Story", showcasing the real difficulty of doing this for deaf people, as Ava grew up not learning how to sign at first and so lip-read instead, which worked poorly since people often were looking away or wouldn't repeat themselves when she missed something. Learning sign language was a godsend after this.
  • In the final episode of Bottom, the protagonists find a tape showing the Prime Minister with a prostitute. The tape has no sound so Eddie tries to lip read what the PM is saying, which is apparently "Oh yeeeesss...oh yeeeesss...oh yeeeeessss..."
  • In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Amy demonstrates the ability to lip-read in a Halloween episode... mostly. She gets the majority of what Captain Holt is saying (enough to formulate her plans) but then translate the rest as something something waffles. She admits it's not perfect when she recounts this.
  • Done more realistically in Burn Notice, where Michael is trying to spy on a guy at a party. His voice-over explains that true lip reading is unreliable and is best paired with being just close enough to sort of hear the conversation and use lip reading to fill in the blanks and confirm what's heard.
  • The Doctor Who episode "Under the Lake" features ghostly apparitions which appear to be silently speaking. Cass, one of the people trapped by the manifestation, is deaf, and is able to read their lips. It is shown not to be perfectly easy, with some words taking her several attempts to figure out.
  • Guiding Light's Abby was deaf, but was so good at this that people often forgot that she couldn't hear them and would turn away from her as they spoke.
  • In The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries episode "Silent Scream", a deaf girl finds out about a Las Vegas bomb plot by reading the lips of a man in a phone booth.
  • In El internado: Las Cumbres Amaia wears hearing aids but is able to read lips beyond realistic standards (See Real Life section below), even from a distance, at low-light conditions or both. Her skill helps when amnesiac Inés asks her to find out what she was mumbling in a recording of her in a hospital with no audio.
  • In The L Word the character Jodie, who is also Deaf has the ability to read lips across the restaurant well enough to tell that the couple Joyce and Phyllis are talking about breaking up.
  • In a Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode that had several deaf people as suspects in the murder of a doctor who performed cochlear implants, Goren actually tries to hide his mouth so that they can't tell that he's talking about them (he's asking the interpreter to tell him what they're "saying"). Unfortunately for him, they notice, and the very fact that he's doing this tips them off to the fact that he's suspicious of them.
  • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: Munch, who doesn't know sign language, asks a deaf murder suspect if she can read his lips. When she confirms that she can, he continues talking to her.
  • Monk: One episode involves a murderer who can read lips, which is how he managed to "eavesdrop" on a trader in a building from afar.
  • In The Pretender episode "Flyer", the hero takes lip-reading lessons from a deaf woman in order to be able to figure out a conversation on a piece of surveillance footage.
  • Diana Quinna of the Quantum Leap episode "Private Dancer" hid her deafness by being very good at this. Unfortunately, this would cause her to get fired when she inevitably missed cues and she messed up at a dance audition when she didn't understand that she was to improvise her own routine because the teacher had turned away from her when she spoke.
  • The 1990s series Reasonable Doubts has a cop assigned to work with a deaf female prosecutor. She uses sign language but also reads lips. In one episode her car is towed away, but the man at the impound lot has a bushy moustache so she can't comprehend what he's saying and has to call the cop to translate for her.
  • Scrubs: JD zones out and tries to recreate the lip motions so that they can be read.
  • The Seinfeld episode "The Lip Reader" centered around this. Jerry was dating a deaf woman who misread his saying "six" as "sex."
    Jerry: So we'll swing by and pick you up. How about six? Six is good. You got a problem with six? ... What? What?
    • George also decides to exploit this when he wants to find out why his latest girlfriend dumped him, but he and Jerry try to avert this by hiding their mouths when they discuss it. It fails as she figures out what they're talking about anyway.
  • Someday or One Day: Mo Jun Jie reads Chen Yun Ru's lips in the final episode, when observing, at a fair distance away, Yun Ru talking to herself (she is really talking to Huang Yu Xuan trapped in her body). He manages to accurately understand the entire conversation.
  • Played for Laughs in Sonny with a Chance where Grady tries to read Chad's lips. His translation is probably as accurate as he could make it in real life.
    Chad: I'm getting a limo to take us at eight o'clock to a nice dinner.
    Grady: He's getting a pillow, two steaks plus, he ate a sock, and a rice dinner.
  • Sue in Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, who is Deaf, uses her lip-reading abilities to do surveillance work for the FBI. The show is loosely based on the real-life Sue Thomas, who was the first deaf undercover investigator for the FBI.
  • The deaf characters in Switched at Birth are proficient at this- namely, Daphne, Emmett and Melody.
  • Utopia Falls: Apollo learns this after becoming deaf, but it goes slowly.
  • Warehouse 13: Pete Lattimer can read lips because of his deaf sister. Proved useful when they used an artifact that could create soundless projections of past events.
  • The West Wing: Recurring character Joey Lucas is deaf and usually communicates via Signed Language, but can read lips to understand what other characters are saying if needed. In one episode her usual translator isn't available, so Josh Lyman asks her to read his lips because he has to tell her secure information and doesn't trust the substitute translator.
  • The Wire has a few scenes with a lip-reader — Herc manages to plant a camera overlooking Marlo's preferred meeting-spot but not a microphone, so he brings one in to tell him what Marlo is saying.
  • Zero Zero Zero: Chris establishes that he can read lips when he eavesdrops on his father's private business meeting. He's hard of hearing due to a progressive neurological disorder, so he presumably learned in anticipation of going deaf.

  • In Dawn of a New Age: Oldport Blues, Benedict gains the superpower of a 'hyper mind'. Amongst other things, this allows him to notice and comprehend incredibly minute details, thus allowing him to read a person's lips perfectly.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Starblazer Adventures, based on the 1970s-80s British science fiction comic book. The Lip Reading stunt allows you to do this.
  • Dungeons & Dragons: the 2nd Edition Player's Handbook introduced the Reading Lips non-weapon proficiency.
    • 5th Edition has the Observant feat, which allows lip-reading as long as it's speaking a language you know.
  • Ars Magica has "Read Lips" as a Virtue you can take, which gives you a skill of the same name. In a nod to realism, it takes a rather tricky skill roll in order to actually understand what's being said (9+ on a d10).
  • Call of Cthulhu has Lip Reading as a potential player skill. As the game is investigation based, it can come in handy rather frequently.

    Web Original 
  • This is the general principle behind Bad Lip Reading - they read lips, badly, and then put the resulting "lyrics" to music (generally; some shorts based on footage of the 2012 presidential candidates was just read back verbatim, instead). Hilarity ensues.
  • Julian Smith as the Bad Dad of "Reading Lips" claims he can do this, but it's incredibly clear he's just making up whatever the subject in question is saying.

    Video Games 
  • Near the end of beta version of Katawa Shoujo Shizune (who is deaf) reveals to Hisao that she's able to read lips.
  • Irene from Missing Stars claims to be able to lip read. She notes that it's very hit-or-miss.
  • The Quiet Man: Dane can read lips, as there are instances in which he directly responds to dialogue that isn't signed to him.
  • The Silver Case: It turns out that Sumio Kodai is actually deaf, to the great surprise of the other characters and the player. He understands people through a combination of incredibly adept lip-reading and special cell phone technology that vibrates against his ear in a code of particular bursts and frequencies which lets him know what the speaker on the other end of the line is saying.

    Western Animation 
  • Adventure Time: In "Ricardio the Heart Guy", Jake claims to be able to read lips as he and Finn spy on Ricardio and Princess Bubblegum having a conversation. Though it's obvious Jake thinks Finn is overreacting due to jealousy and is making stuff up to mess with him.
    Jake: (as Bubblegum) Hey, shorty! You should pick your boogers, and then fart. (as Ricardio) You look kinda like a big pink baguette.
  • Big City Greens: In "Listen Up", Cricket tries to read Bill's lips and thinks he wants him to shake the rooster, when in reality Bill was warning him not to wake the rooster.
  • Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot also parodied the 2001 scene by having Dr. Slate confront Lt. Hunter about the true nature of the Big Guy (that it's actually an exosuit rather than a fully-operational robot). Unbeknownst to them, Rusty is watching them from outside the window. However, he can't actually read lips, instead going "Blah blah blah blah blah." while watching them speak.
  • Futurama parodies the 2001 scene described above with one where a spaceship's controlling computer, attempting to listen in on a conversation, bemoans the fact that it can't read lips.
  • Wander over Yonder: In "The Rival", Lord Hater tries to read the lips of Lord Dominator and Emperor Awesome. Turns out he doesn't actually know how to read lips.
    Hater: "Can you take my rabbit for a walk on Tuesday?" "No way, bro! His leash is made of beef sticks, and that's unsanitary. I could make him a congressman instead, bro." Phew! Nothing to worry about, they're only talking about weird stuff that doesn't make any sense.

    Real Life 
  • In practice, lipreading is fairly difficult skill, with around 25-50% success on identifying words; the rest is using logic to fill in the blanks. Not all deaf people can lipread, as some would assume, and to top it off, it also varies depending on the individual deaf person's hearing level. And to add to mess, it also depends on the person speaking, especially if the person mumbles, has a strong accent, or has facial hair that covers the lips. Generally, deaf people have a much easier time understanding someone they know personally—family and friends—than complete strangers.
  • Deaf model Nyle DiMarco learned lip reading from his deaf school. He says that he has trouble there with people with accent or small lips, when people speak too fast or when it's dark.
  • A recurring problem in police departments is police substituting this for actual ASL interpreters. To make matters worse, not only do a lot of officers have facial hair, but they tend to start yelling when they think they're being misunderstood, making their lip movements go from "barely recognizable" to "completely unintelligible". Samantha Bee demonstrates.


Video Example(s):



Jerry and George make a valiant effort to block Jerry's deaf girlfriend from reading their lips but still fail miserably.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (8 votes)

Example of:

Main / ReadingLips

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