Sign Language Etiquette: Interpreters Socializing & Deaf Peers

The Difference of Spoken vs. Sign Language

Sign language etiquette is different from spoken language etiquette.  For interpreters socializing, or those fluent in sign language, using spoken language with hearing peers is common since English is typically their first language. If a Deaf person, however, were to join the conversation, should they continue in spoken language or use sign language?

Industry Standards

It is common practice and industry standard to communicate in sign language in the presence of a Deaf peer if you are fluent in sign language.  Additionally, you should interpret for anyone involved in the conversation who is not fluent in sign language.  Have you ever walked into a conversation where everyone is speaking a language different from yours?  It is uncomfortable, and you feel excluded.interpreters socializing

In recent years, it has been noted that some interpreters socializing do not sign when a Deaf person is present.  For example, two interpreters will be communicating in spoken language when a Deaf person joins the conversation.  They refuse, however, to begin communicating in sign language.  What would happen if a hearing person were to walk up and you chose to speak in a language you did not have in common?  The answer is the same.  Either include that person using your mutual language or appear “rude.”


Common Courtesy

Interpreters socializing report that they refuse to use sign language because they are “off the clock, and they do not want to feel forced to work” unpaid or when they are not scheduled.  This is a valid feeling since the reason they are “speaking” is likely to take a break from sign language.  It is also important to note that the sign language interpreting field has always been inclusive of Deaf peers. When you become a sign language interpreter, or are fluent in sign language, you must be willing to accept the responsibility that goes along with that.  If you are exhausted, or for any reason do not want to interpret a conversation, then politely excuse yourself.

On the reverse, the sign language interpreting field requests volunteering on a regular basis.  Since there is continuous pressure for volunteering, it could be that interpreters are downright tired of being asked.  Most Deaf consumers are respectful of an interpreter’s time, but not all are.  If an interpreter decides to excuse themselves from a conversation and not use sign language, please do not hold it against them.

Inclusion of Deaf Peers

Being a sign language interpreter is a customer service bound by a code of professional conduct.  This code of conduct (ethics) enforces equal access to communication which may include sign language.  Our ethics and inclusion of Deaf Peers allow us to grow as a profession and as individual people.  If that is not enough, regardless or our personal beliefs, we should treat everyone as human with respect and inclusion.

Remember the golden rule: when in the presence of a Deaf peer be sure to use sign language.


Additional Resources:

National Association of the Deaf


Photo Credit:

MT & Associates | Sign Language Interpreting Practice BBB Business Review