For a little while in college, I was minoring in sign language. Many people are surprised to learn that American Sign Language is not in fact just a direct sign-to-word translation. Meaning, when speaking ASL, you won’t actually sign every single word that was (or would be) spoken. True sign language communication is much more holistic and artistic than stringing long sentences of words together.
In order to minor in sign language, we had to take one or two classes that basically covered the Deaf culture, which, also surprising to many, is different from the speaking culture. One of the biggest differences is how quickly Deaf people get to the point. Our professor explained that to hearing people, it seems blunt, but in reality, it is just a more efficient way of communicating. I totally get this. Because they get to the point quickly and do not mince “words” when they are talking to each other, an outsider might look in on a Deaf conversation and think, “Well that sounds rude.” Let me give you an example that I still remember one of my professors telling us early in the semester. She had been an interpreter for years and had met and known many Deaf people in her town. Then, she moved away, got married, and had a baby. She went back for a visit and ran in to an old Deaf friend. The first thing this woman signed to her was, “Wow! It’s been so long! You fat! Used to be thin, what happened?” To this our professor signed back (all the while, both women smiling and hugging) “I know! Got married. Had a baby. Kept the belly! Your hair’s gray!” This conversation was like a warm moment between two old friends where absolutely no offense was taken by either party at anything that was said.
I wish we hearing people could be more like this.
The English language probably has 25 synonyms for “fat” (in varying degrees of politeness). Sign language, on the other hand, does not have 25 different signs for each of those words. I mean, sure, perhaps this Deaf woman could have signed “You look different,” but in order to sign that, she has to show where the difference has taken place. To point to the face, as if to say, “Your appearance,” is different, would signify that my professor’s face had changed. And perhaps she could have signed a literal: “You have added a respectable amount of weight to your butt, legs, and belly,” but in her culture, that would never be done. The genuine love this woman had for my professor and the “No offense, but–” was controlled by two things: her facial expression, and my professor’s knowledge that in her culture, this woman was absolutely not being offensive.
Again. I wish we hearing people could be more like that.
How much time do we waste in adding all sorts of unnecessary words to how we feel, in the fear that what we really want to say might offend someone? How much time is wasted in cleaning up an accidental offense? And then, how often do we end up bottling up how we really feel because we’re afraid of hurting the feelings of someone else at the expense of our own?
Dear humanity: grow thicker skin. It will increase productivity and decrease stress all over the world.
On a seemingly unrelated note, getting together with other moms of pre-school kids inevitably leads to conversations of “Listen to what my child said in line at the grocery store the other day which mortified me…” One common one, of course, includes kids who are so obsessed with pregnancy (usually stemming from a pregnant mom) that they believe everyone with any sort of belly at all must also be pregnant. Even men. Another is the pointing out of obvious physical differences between people. Sometimes this sounds like, “What is that big thing on your cheek? That big red thing? With hair.” I also realized that my child isn’t the only kid who was really excited about learning the word “nipple,” showing hers off, and asking others if they also have them.
One sentiment I rarely share with these moms though, is that feeling of humiliation. In fact, I admitted recently that Eliott often gives voice to the exact thoughts inside my programmed “Things not to say out loud” head. I’m often so relieved and satisfied to have them spoken aloud that I have to work at concealing my agreement with her. (This could possibly say one of two things: one, that I still have the maturity of a 4 year old. Noted. Or two, that my child is my genetic spawn and DNA is in far more control of things than many give it credit for.)
Last week, on a particularly hot day, we went to the grocery store. Though the parking lot was mostly empty, I did not take a prime spot toward the front. Instead, I parked in a space that was empty on both sides, knowing I could open both car doors wide and allow a breeze to flow through while getting kids buckled into their 5 point harnesses. But the moment we pulled in, two rather large white SUV’s pulled in on each side of me. One was a Tahoe. The other was an Escalade. In hindsight, I can’t be sure that both these women weren’t well within their own lines on either side, but the fact was, in my little red Hyundai, all three of us were forced to squeeze out of the doors to avoid dinging the pristine white walls on either side. Needless to say, I was a little annoyed by this. I reminded Eliott (who can now undo her own seat belts) to “be careful” as she opened her door, but before I could even gather my shopping bags and get out I hear her little four year old voice of fury and arguably genetic sense of superiority from behind the car: “Why did you park so close to us?” Looking in my rear view mirror I see a horrified woman who seems to be in her mid-50s. Eliott goes on: “We almost couldn’t even open our doors. You should not park so close to our car next time.”
So many possible responses.
(I did, with difficulty, manage to refrain from a double fist pump and gladiatoresque, “YEAH!” in the woman’s face, followed by high fiving my four year old.)
Actually, I let the woman handle it herself. And I didn’t apologize for Eliott. And I don’t regret it.