Sign Language Etiquette: In Deaf Culture Physical Touch is Common
Though not preferred by all, in Deaf culture physical touch is a common cultural norm. The Deaf population may use it to communicate with both the hearing and Deaf population.
Reasons for Physical Touch
You may wonder why physical touch is a communication norm, as some people are uncomfortable with physical touch. Generally, the larger hearing population does not understand sign language, but Deaf people must interact with the hearing population daily. How do you communicate with people who do not share a common language?
Writing back and forth is a common request, because it’s considered “easiest.” Since English is not usually the first language of a sign language user, it is not successful when trying to explain something complicated or with a lot of technical details. In these situations, sometimes physical touch is required. For example, a Deaf person may tap you on the shoulder to get your attention or they may literally move/shift your body to direct you to see something. Or they may move you aside to show or mimic what they would like for you to do. Following this, they will likely look back at you with a questioning face as if to ask, “Do you understand?”
Why Physical Touch is Paired with Charades
Deaf sign language users typically think in pictures, so a variation of charades is another common method used in Deaf culture. For example, if you are traveling to a city where everyone speaks a foreign language you do not understand, think of how would you communicate with them. What would you do if you were thirsty, hungry, or in need of the bathroom? Again, since the larger hearing population does not share a common language with the Deaf population, i.e. sign language, Deaf people are constantly using physical touch paired with charades to make their request or need clear.
Don’t be offended! If, in Deaf culture, physical touch makes you uncomfortable, talk about it.
The general population sometimes finds charades or physical touch offensive. Please be open and talk to the Deaf person. If it is your coworker, perhaps your boss can join the conversation to work out a way to mutually communicate effectively.
Check out the video and our resources below to find other ways to communicate with Deaf people more effectively.