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How to Behave Politely when Hanging Out with Deaf Friends

In order to be comfortable in the Deaf community, you should be familiar with some of their customs and nuances. Here are some common Deaf customs you may encounter when spending time with Deaf friends.

Getting a Deaf person's attention

You can get a Deaf person’s attention in a variety of ways. Each way is used according to the situation (a good general rule is to watch how and when the Deaf people do each one):

  • Flickering the lights: Flickering the lights gets everyone’s attention visually. You can also use it to draw attention to yourself when you enter a room in which a Deaf person has his or her back turned toward you.

    It isn’t customary to walk up behind a Deaf person and grab, poke, or slap him or her on the back. Doing so isn’t necessarily offensive, but that action is used as more of a warning that something is wrong or that there’s an emergency.

  • Waving: Wave your hand in your Deaf friend's peripheral vision field. Wave casually; a frantic wave may give the impression something is wrong.

  • Tapping: If you’re close enough in distance to the person, a tap on the arm is a sure way to get a response. This is the preferred way to get someone’s attention.

  • Pounding and stomping: Pounding an object, such as a table or counter, and/or stomping on the floor release vibrations that the Deaf person can feel. There’s no clear rule to follow as to which method to use, nor do Deaf people show a preference for one over the other. Stomping on the floor is usually done in a one-on-one situation, not in a group setting.

    You don’t need to pound or stomp hard; you just want to get that person’s attention, not scare him or her.

The eyes have it among the Deaf community

For obvious reasons, the Deaf community is very visually based, so they use their eyes to convey meaning and position themselves to best see the world around them. For example, Deaf people sometimes use their eyes for pointing. This is called eye-gazing. Deaf people also stare to refer to someone who isn’t present.

Also, you may notice that many Deaf people in offices have their desks facing the door, so they can see right away if someone enters the room. If they have computers, their desks may even be a little lower than normal so that they can sign more easily to people on the other side of the desk. And at social gatherings in someone’s home, it’s not uncommon for everyone to gather around the kitchen table. They do this because kitchens typically have good lighting, allowing everyone to see the Signs clearly.

Leaving egos at the door

If you’re a novice signer and an invitation is extended to you from a Deaf person, the first rule is: Enjoy yourself! You were invited because that person wants a friendship and/or wants to introduce you to other members of the Deaf community.

For people who can hear, having a Deaf person correct your Signing can be frustrating, even insulting. But when a Deaf person corrects your signing, he or she views you as being worthy of the time spent to do it. Your Deaf friends see something in you that makes them feel good.

Cracking the code within Deaf conversation

You may also notice Deaf people silently signing together, but when you enter the room, they begin to use their voices. This action is known as code switching. They want to include you in their conversation, so it’s a compliment.

Novice signers often have trouble trying to keep up with Deaf conversations. The first instinct is to ask the Deaf person to slow down, but that’s actually the wrong way to go about it. The Deaf converse at a pace that is normal for Sign. Your eyes need to get used to following the action. If you get lost somewhere in the conversation, that’s okay. Don’t be embarrassed if someone asks if you understand; repeat what you think you understood. Honesty is honesty in any language.

Questions you shouldn’t ask a Deaf person

Never initiate a conversation about a Deaf person’s hearing loss. Questioning someone about this implies that you don’t view that person as whole, but broken, incomplete, or inferior. The Deaf are often comfortable talking about their hearing aids, batteries that need replaced, and ear molds, but it’s best if you leave this subject to the individual who has the disability.

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