The Uses of Directness Within the Conversation


The use of directness within conversations means extremely different things between Deaf culture and hearing culture. While the former relies on it for effective communication, the latter tends to avoid it for fear of disrupting conversation. Throughout this semester, I was able to further familiarize myself with the inner workings of Deaf culture through attending Northeastern University’s “Deaf, Deaf World” event again, watching See What I Mean: Differences between Deaf and Hearing Cultures, video-calling my professor to discuss what I learned from the aforementioned DVD, as well as going to two other events within the Deaf community. Based on all of the above experiences, I have not only managed to become more confident in my skills as an ASL student, but also more knowledgeable about the vastly different expectations in conversation within Deaf and hearing cultures.

Having attended “Deaf, Deaf World” once before, I was admittedly less anxious this time around, but still desperately wanted to do well for my own sake. This was especially true given how poorly I had performed last semester, having only visited 3 tables at the event. While I still felt nervous about unintentionally offending the Deaf and Deafblind individuals present, I knew the only way I could learn from my previous mistakes was to take action and commit to the tasks at hand. Thankfully, I managed to have an incredibly fulfilling experience by successfully visiting every table and effectively communicating with the people stationed there. It was also during this event that I was first introduced to the concept of directness within the Deaf and Deafblind communities.

Upon visiting Elaine Ducharme’s table, which was an electronics supply store, I was immediately caught off guard as I had never interacted with a Deafblind individual before. Although the conversation only required me to fingerspell my name and sign which product I wanted to purchase, it still took a few tries before I realized how to place Elaine’s hand on mine so she could understand what I was spelling and signing to her. Once we finished our conversation, Elaine immediately signed to me that I needed more practice, something I wholeheartedly agreed with, even though it made me feel a bit embarrassed at the time. This instant, direct feedback I received served as a great introduction to how Deaf and Deafblind individuals perceived directness differently from hearing individuals. To Elaine, this probably seemed completely natural and was intended to be helpful for an ASL student such as myself. To me, however, it made me worry about my own mistakes and the possibility of having ruined Elaine’s first impression of me.

The above situation is consistent with the section on giving criticism and feedback in See What I Mean, in which a Deaf employee was left confused after their hearing coworker gave them feedback by using “the Sandwich Approach” (See What I Mean)—opening with a positive introductory phrase to soften the blow, then slipping in the critique, before closing with another positive comment. I had never considered that this approach could be confusing to people before; it simply seemed like the best way to go about things without hurting the other person’s feelings. Similarly, the use of text-pagers in the DVD scenario also made me re-evaluate the presence of technology in our lives. While many have argued that technology has paved the way for improved communication, differing intentions and taking the readily-available technology for granted can often lead to misunderstandings instead, as demonstrated by the Deaf boyfriend and his hearing girlfriend.

By completing the video-call portion of this project, I have come to realize that the most challenging aspect of Deaf culture to me is the belief that “if you can see it, you can comment on it” (See What I Mean). In hearing culture, many messages are often implied or even left unsaid for fear of inciting conflict. On the other hand, in Deaf culture, messages are presented as clearly and bluntly as possible to get the point across. This occurred in class once earlier on in the semester, when our professor was describing how one of his siblings looked different from the rest of his family, leading them to believe that sibling may have been adopted. At that point in the story, our professor pointed out my classmate Tyler—who was heavier-set—and illustrated how that specific sibling resembled Tyler in terms of their body shape and weight while the rest of his family was much skinnier. Personally, I would never have been able to make a direct comment like that, because I would feel as though I were insulting the other person in the conversation instead.

I noticed these cultural differences at play even when attending CJ Jones’ comedy performance. When a child in the audience was being unruly and disruptive to his act, CJ immediately started a brief conversation with the child and ended by telling him to be quiet. This greatly differed from how hearing comedians might have dealt with the situation, such as ignoring the child or attempting to bribe them into calming down with candy, as hearing people tend to coddle their children very frequently. Aside from this, during the audience participation segment, CJ wasted no time in pointing out the hearing audience members’ mistakes before quickly teaching them the correct sign for the word he had selected. This process would have taken much longer in hearing contexts, as saving face for oneself and others is still considered a major part of how to interact with strangers for the first time. However, had CJ reacted differently, it most definitely would not have been as entertaining or as educational for everyone watching. As part of the third party in the conversations between CJ and the hearing audience members on stage, any ambiguity would only have made the segment confusing and less easy to comprehend.

In conclusion, Deaf and hearing cultures are two fundamentally different things with different social expectations and values. While hearing communities tend to operate as an “individualist culture” (See What I Mean), in which the rights of the individual are of the utmost importance, Deaf communities are much more “collectivist” (See What I Mean), in which members of the group support and are responsible for each other in the common pursuit of the group’s success. This greatly alters how social interactions within these two cultures operate, from the classroom to home to the workplace. While hearing people tend to value their privacy and self-confidence most, Deaf people make use of these two factors to uphold their personal responsibilities and share information that could be beneficial to one another. As a small and intimate community, directness is considered one of the most effective ways for clear communication between Deaf individuals to occur, particularly given the historical limitations for Deaf people to interact with each other and with hearing people. Therefore, it is crucial to keep the above facts in mind when interacting with Deaf individuals, not only to allow for the concise exchange of information, but also to avoid assuming the worst in someone with good, innocent intentions.

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