Sign Language Etiquette: Socializing with Deaf Coworkers

Socializing etiquette with Deaf coworkers is the same as socializing with hearing coworkers with just a few exceptions.  If you are aware of and sensitive to Deaf cultural norms, you will more successfully enjoy a work relationship.

Deaf or Hearing Impaired

Most sign language users refer to themselves as Deaf.  Hearing impaired, or deaf-mute, is usually considered derogatory and offensive. See our blog on why Deaf people do not refer to themselves as hearing impaired.

Getting a Deaf Coworker’s Attention

Since Deaf people cannot hear you coming, and you cannot verbally get their attention, you may need to stand in their visual space.  Sometimes, a gentle wave of your hand in their visual space will do.  Or perhaps you may need to tap them on the shoulder.  Also, it is not uncommon for a Deaf person to beat on a table or physically tap someone on the shoulder to get their attention.  So do not be alarmed if this occurs.  Deaf cultural norms tend to include more physical touching since most of the public does not know sign language as a common language. See our blog on physical touch deaf cultural norms.


Often, a Deaf person cannot hear if they are making noises such as their hearing aid buzzing or noise occurring in their work space.  For example, perhaps you work in a cubicle setting, and a Deaf coworker’s computer is making an awful noise.  Or every time your Deaf coworker sets down a folder on their file cabinet, it emits a loud sound.  In either instance, you may need to make them aware of it because they likely have no idea it’s happening.

Multiple Deaf Coworkers/Communication Cultural Normsdeaf coworkers - conversation

If you work with more than one Deaf person, they likely will speak to each other using sign language.  It is common for hearing people to pause midway when walking in between two people having a conversation in sign language, but this is not necessary. Pausing in between is actually more disruptive.  If you want to cut through a conversation, simply visually lift your hand as in a wave, as to say excuse me, and simply keep walking.  This is confusing because in the hearing culture you would pause and excuse yourself prior to walking in between two people talking, or you would do your best to walk around them.  Consider this also if a Deaf person passes through your spoken conversation with another coworker.  It is simply Deaf cultural norms.



Department of Human Services: Deaf Culture


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