Ways Deaf and Hearing Culture Are Different

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.

Two young woman speak in sign language
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Sign Language Is Not 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. Often American Sign Language is used for international communication in some academic settings (possibly due to the influence of ​Gallaudet University in the USA, the only liberal arts university in the world for deaf students). American Sign Language is completely different from ​British Sign Language. The British Sign Language (BSL) family includes BSL, ​Australian Sign Language and New Zealand Sign Language. These sign languages are similar enough for people who know any one of them to be able to understand Deaf people who use one of the others.

Deaf People Can Be Very Direct

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.

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.

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)

By Melissa Karp, AuD
Melissa Karp, AuD, is a board-certified audiologist and the owner of a private audiology clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina.