Deaf Culture Facts That Might Surprise You
Hearing people often think of deafness as simply “an inability to hear.” Being Deaf, though, is about more than just whether or not a person can hear—it’s about being part of a community with its own history, values, and culture. Let’s take a look at some of the more surprising facts about Deaf culture and how it differs from hearing culture.
Sign Language Isn’t Universal
While American Sign Language is used in the United States and Canada, most countries have their own distinct sign languages. Just as American Sign Language is unrelated to spoken English, the sign languages of other countries have their own unique histories separate from the origins and histories of their countries’ respective spoken languages. For example, since the co-founder of the first school for the Deaf in the United States was from France, American Sign Language has many similarities to French Sign Language. American Sign Language is completely different, though, from British Sign Language. In other words, American Deaf people can often communicate easily with French Deaf people, but not with British Deaf people!
It’s not unusual for Deaf people to be completely comfortable talking about personal topics like health, salary, and how much their mortgage is, even with people they don’t know well. In Deaf culture, information sharing is valued, so it isn’t considered rude to ask questions that may seem overly personal to hearing people. Why this difference? Hearing culture is generally individualist, with a lot of emphasis on privacy, personal space, and "doing your own thing." In contrast, Deaf culture is collectivist, with Deaf people seeing themselves as part of a close-knit and interconnected group. Sharing information is an important aspect of cultures that value this kind of interconnectedness.
Deaf People Can Be Very Direct
Similar to the value placed on information sharing, Deaf people can be direct with comments and questions about topics that hearing people often consider rude. For example, Deaf people don’t consider it rude to make comments such as, “You’ve really gained weight—what happened?” In fact, not commenting on an obvious change like weight gain can come across as aloof or uncaring. Alternatively, while hearing people might interpret Deaf people’s directness as rude, Deaf people can be confused by how roundabout hearing people can be. For example, when giving criticism or feedback, hearing people often “pad” their negative feedback with positive statements. For Deaf people, this can send mixed messages since it isn’t clear what message the hearing person is trying to convey.
Deaf People Are Better Drivers Than Hearing People
A common myth about Deaf people is that since they can’t hear, they must be bad drivers. However, quite the opposite is true. According to statistics compiled by the National Association of the Deaf and the U.S. government, Deaf drivers tend to be better drivers than hearing people.1 It’s not entirely clear why this is the case, but it’s probably because driving is primarily a visual activity, and the ideal driving environment is a quiet one (just think of how many hearing drivers are distracted by loud music or phone conversations while driving!). Plus, there’s some evidence that Deaf people have better peripheral vision than hearing people2, which would be a great advantage when driving.
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Looking At The Face, Not Hands, When Communicating
If you watch Deaf people sign, you’ll notice that they look at each other’s faces, not hands, when communicating. People who are learning to sign often fixate on the signer’s hands, which looks unnatural and can hinder effective communication. This is because facial expressions are just as important for communication in sign language as using the hands and can have a huge impact on the meaning that is being conveyed. In fact, the emotionless facial expressions of people who are learning to sign can be a source of some amusement in the Deaf community! Interestingly, one reason the fake interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was so easily identified was not just because his signs were gibberish--he also remained completely expressionless while signing.
ASL Flash Cards
Getting Someone's Attention
To get someone’s attention, Deaf people might tap someone on the shoulder. Or, they might bang or tap on a table so that the vibrations cause everyone at the table to look toward the source of the vibrations. In a large group or classroom setting, flashing the lights off and on is a common way to get everyone’s attention. It’s rude to wave your hands right in front of a Deaf person’s face to get their attention. Just gently tap them on the shoulder instead. It’s ok to wave your hand, though, if you’re too far away for a shoulder tap. Here are some commons mistakes hearing people make when trying to get a Deaf person's attention. These are generally considered inappropriate or even rude.
- stomping furiously on the floor
- turning the lights on and off when you're trying to get just one person's attention, and not the entire group
- aggressively jabbing the person you want to talk to
- waving your hand right in front of the person's face
- grabbing the person's hands to force him or her to stop signing and pay attention to you (never, ever grab a Deaf person's hands--that's like someone putting their hand over the mouth of a hearing person)
Have you observed any other facts about Deaf culture and how it differs from hearing culture? Leave your comments below!
 Dennis Cokely and Charlotte Baker-Shenk, American Sign Language: A Student Text Units 1-9, Gallaudet University Press, 1991, page 79
 Codina, et. al., "Deaf and Hearing Children: A Comparison of Peripheral Vision Development."
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