Dealing with Deaf at the party

You know when you’re in a crowded room so busy it’s difficult to hear the person three inches from you? I might ask them to speak up a few times, maybe repeat themselves, but after a few times I become self-conscious. It’s easier to pretend to follow along and wait until I catch the next bit. But then its a joke that has everyone laughing! Hold up, repeat it please.

Imagine you can keep turning the volume down on your ear. What’s Jon suddenly so serious about? Something funny? Oh shit, Tyler shouldn’t have said whatever it was that he just said that made Sam hit him.* How many times would you ask a crowd to repeat something for your sake? I mean after a while isn’t it better not to draw attention to yourself and be happy letting the rest enjoy themselves? They’re your friends and it’s nice to see them having fun, and they’re comfortable with you watching along.

I was made without the ear-volume problem, and grew up knowing that. I am absolutely amazed at my parents and other Deaf’s tolerance at this natural awkwardness: It’s not Jon and Tyler’s fault they socialize verbally, and even if God-bless-em they could sign, it’s nobody’s fault that simultaneous production in speech and sign language is a pain in the ass. (Gold prize to the hearing signer that can capture the pun of an English joke in ASL on the fly.)

So if you see a person without the ear-function required to understand the conversation, smiling and trying not to draw attention to themselves at a bustling Christmas party, what do you think? Maybe they don’t mind. And true, maybe that’s what they want you to think. But it doesn’t make it ideal, or fair. But in fact for many Deaf, this IS nice compared to daily interactions.** At least at a party the company is accepting, not staring awkwardly, is emotionally welcoming, and makes an effort to keep my parents involved (and it’s too bad but not uncommon if they aren’t).

When Mom is in the circle or on the couch with me, and some good eye-contact and dramatic expressions are undeniably suggesting something priceless is being said between Jon and Tyler, know what I do sometimes? I turn the volume down on my ears. Their jokes aren’t funny. Sam hits Tyler and I hardly notice. Mom asks me what happened, and I don’t actually know, either.

For the ethics cheat-sheet, equality can only be hinted at if there’s a dedicated interpreter able to capture the conversation while making himself invisible in the social situation. If the goal is to accomodate the communication needs, the moment the interpreter enjoys the audio for himself he’s contributing to the alienation. Unless I’m only invited to the party to interpret for my folks, I’m in a weird position. Unless my parents are at the party to be by-definition outsiders, it seems to me the right thing to do is to be deaf, too.

Which is sort of liberating. If my dad catches me laughing, because what Tyler said was so stupid I couldn’t help myself, I’ll take the moment to summarize for him. But when I get, “What’s that about? What’s funny? What are they talking about?” and I can honestly reply, “I missed it,” or “I don’t know, something about car problems,” what I’m also saying is, “It’s pretty boring, you’re not missing much.” It’s a little unfair, because I still hold a power my folks never got from the conversation: the opportunity to decide something wasn’t funny, and the opportunity to decide (not) to be part of the conversation at all.

Another way of dealing with this intrinsic inequality is to keep the interpreting switch turned on permanently and sign everything. This probably contributes to why so many children of deaf adults go into professional interpreting. After all, all the Jons and Tylers and other talkers in this world aren’t about to take up sign language, are they?

But the Deaf aren’t asking you to deal with this, really. If there’s something they’re amazing at it’s absorbing the social awkwardness for the hearing’s sake. Take it from a hearing person who’s lived this truth, the deaf are predominantly ‘dealing with it’, not the hearing. But let’s contribute a little. Short of learning sign, there’s an easy step in the right direction we all could do more often. Pause your lips, make eye-contact, and turn your ears off for a minute. Then do friendly things, starting with smiling. Now, inevitably you’ll overhear a joke and not be able to help yourself to enjoy it. That’s fine! Help yourself to the joke, it won’t be insulting. I promise, even that short moment with your ears off will be fully appreciated.

*My dad loves “The Three Stooges”, whose humor is quite brilliantly little more than nonverbal behavior in awkward social interactions.

**Out in public, the average customer-service agent, cashier or salesperson didn’t get the paid training to ‘deal’ with a deaf customer in a timely yet satisfactory way. My mom always has her receipt ready, product immaculately repackaged, and the particular store’s return policy/procedure memorized, so no questions or answers are needed when she presents all necessary material (grab replacement item first or go to the clerk first?). Don’t worry about drive-thrus, they’re not an option.

More: Talk about Deafhood, The Definition of Deaf

7 thoughts on “Dealing with Deaf at the party

  1. Thank you for sharing! This is a really great message. I found this post particularly interesting because ever since I became interested in Deaf culture and sign language, the idea of communicating in a noisy environment/party was always something I thought a lot about. I began analyzing my own experiences when I was in a noisy setting and trying to imagine how incredibly challenging that must be for someone who is hard of hearing or deaf. When you mentioned your mom’s experience in stores that is something that I never really thought about. Or drive-thrus. There are so many little things that the hearing world really takes for granted. My favorite line was, “the opportunity to decide something wasn’t funny, and the opportunity to decide (not) to be part of the conversation at all.” This really stuck our to me and I wish it was something that more people understood.

    1. I appreciate your thoughts and reaction to my post, Dana. The last one, I’m really glad stuck with you, because I think it’s crucial in understanding the rest of what you referred to. That is, it’s not just that the deaf are in environments where others can communicate and take communication for granted, it’s that there’s a power difference in deciding that reality. We need to remember that as users of the majority language, we have a privilege to control what kinds of conversations, and when we have them, with deaf people, and that’s fundamentally unfair. If we’re really trying to address the problem, we wouldn’t just decide, “Let’s let there be more access at drive-thrus,” etc., the Deaf would be allowed to decide that.

  2. I appreciate the “imagine” statements and the questions that you posed in this post, as it forced me to ask myself how I would react to not being able to hear at a party. However, one idea that left me with questions was when you mentioned, “equality can only be hinted at if there’s a dedicated interpreter able to capture the conversation while making himself invisible to the social situation.” Therefore, if an interpreter is supposed to become invisible, does this mean that both parties can never fully engage in the situation? Is this guilt of enjoying the conversation one that you yourself struggle with, or is it common among interpreters?

    1. Kristen, I’m glad you were able to engage with the essay! That’s a good question. In the context above, where I am the interpreter but I’m also my mother’s son, or the party host’s guest, it’s meant to be an irreconcilable problem. There’s not an easy way to be both. However, interpreters generally, are not also guests or relatives of a deaf client, when they’re working. They’re at the ‘party’ or the graduation, or doctor’s office to create equal communicative access for the deaf. The interpreter has two conversations simultaneously, but is trained to attempt to have only one conversation exist, with themselves removed as the common denominator. Those used to using interpreters, my parents for instance, are used to engaging professionally with them, but focusing on the individuals they intend to talk with. Unfortunately, it is not often the case that said individuals are equally as comfortable with, let alone aware of how to interact with someone who has an interpreter.

  3. I really enjoyed this post and definitely resonated with it. My mom is deaf in one ear and from a young child I can recall multiple instances where she has asked me to explain or repeat something. This is fixed simply and efficiently by repeating the message missed verbally, maybe louder or on her “good side” as she likes to say. But occasionally and regrettably I can also recall moments where I’ve felt momentary feelings of exasperation and immediately afterward felt guilty for feeling this way. Have you also ever felt like this or gone through a phase where you resented your situation, or have you always felt as positively as you do now?

    1. Tricia, I’m glad you’re able to relate, and also sorry that you end up feeling these moments of frustration. I’ve always been frustrated about the situation, but there’s more to be said. For most of my life I knew my frustration was not in the inherent ‘situation’ of my parents not sharing a language with the majority of people, but I wasn’t able to pinpoint it. The more I write and talk about my experiences, however, the more I’ve refined that frustration and made it more concrete. I’m frustrated at what hearing people take for granted, at their assumption that they’re helpful and caring when they haven’t considered learning about who they claim to help or care for. I’m frustrated at how obvious this is, and how fixable the hearing problem is. It’s a wonderful feeling, because it liberates how I feel about Deafhood and my parents: I love it and them, and sign language is really really cool. I’m lucky, because my having a sense of how interesting sign language is, is an advantage in a field that is still obsessed with studying spoken language.

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