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.