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Feb 29, 2020

Speaking to the Deaf

We have several Deaf and hard-of-hearing colleagues. To be included in a meeting, they need similar accommodations: state your name, do not talk too fast, ad do not talk over each other, do not have side conversations. It is done to allow interpreters or captioners to make a better sense of the conversation.

To be clear, yes, it does have some cost to the rest of us. For some interruptions and bantering is a culturally acceptable and enjoyable part of any conversation; it is a symbol of informality, an invitation to engage. If you have to wait to crack a joke, the timing may be off and the moment gone. And the very intrusion on the other person’s speech may be a part of the joke. I would argue that it is a very small price to pay for including our colleagues, and we should do it on ethical grounds just a matter of course. We are not there yet, but slowly learning.

However, I noticed that the meetings with interpreters or captioners are actually better in more ways than one would expect. Despite going slower, those meetings actually run faster and accomplish more. Why? - because people tend to formulate their thoughts better before they speak. There is less repetition, and fewer asides and digressions. People think a little more before speaking, and sometimes it is not a bad thing. They speak in more complete sentences, do not go in circles as much, and tend to summarize their points. Instinctively, people strive for more clarity, and it benefits everyone, including the speaker. Participants also understand that they may need to articulate their emotions through words, not through tone of voice. That removes a lot of ambiguity in messaging, because the tone is not a very straightforward communicative tool. The tone can be deceiving, and some people come across as angry while they are simply excited. In some subcultures speaking with more emotion is a signifier of authenticity, while in others it shows you are unstable. The Deaf use more energetic facial expressions for the same purpose, and their way of doing it is a lot less ambiguous. Facial expressions are much more culturally neutral, for they have deeper evolutionary roots. If you are looking at a Deaf person signing, you would never be mistaken on how they feel about the subject. To find a common venue between tone and expressions, we all have to explicitly state our positions. There is very little room for concealing your disapproval while remaining superficially polite, or vice versa. You have to say how you feel, and it cuts down on a lot of dancing around.

I have to say, it does take some effort to get used to this form of a conversation. But don’t feel sorry for yourself – it is immeasurably more difficult for both Deaf and hard-of-hearing people to navigate our communicational landscape. I also keep reminding myself that the situation is asymmetrical. All of us who hear can learn ASL if we really wanted to. But Deaf people cannot learn to hear. Hard-of-hearing people cannot learn to hear better. At the very least we should shift our mode of speaking and enjoy the unexpected benefits it provides. Yes, we meet more like Norwegians than like Italians or Russians. So, what? Isn’t learning something new fun?

Speaking of cultures, I think the kind of conversations we are mastering is quite typical in multilingual communities, where almost everyone speaks as a non-native speaker. People learn to accommodate each other by being clear, speaking in full sentences, and avoiding obscure cultural references and excessive word play. When a Finn and a Spaniard speak to each other, they use the Pan-European English in a similar way. And it takes a special skill that a native speaker may or may not possess. American domestic English if full of cultural references, baseball-related idioms and slang that very few people who do not live here can fully comprehend. However, many Americans with international experience easily switch into a friendlier mode when needed, and use it masterfully. African English dialects tend to use similar communication mode, with complete sentences and pauses to allow for fuller comprehension. It is actually not that hard. It is not a poorer, less expressive form of communication. Rather, it is different, but just as rich and perhaps significantly more efficient. You just need better jokes.

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