This post was inspired by Bruno Kahn’s article “Lessons of Silence.”
Some years ago, I took a few courses in American Sign Language and Deaf culture. Language learning is one of my passions. I loved tackling the particular grammar and syntax in ASL and was fascinated by how it felt to communicate visually and physically.
ASL isn’t about using you hands. It’s about using your whole body, including distinct facial expressions for certain questions and statements. It is highly energetic and intuitive. When I conversed with ASL, I felt as if I were exercising a whole new part of my brain.
Growing up, I was known as “the quiet one.” I was debilitatingly shy and much preferred to listen than to speak. Adults frequently asked me to repeat myself of to “speak up.” A grade school teacher once wrote on my report card that “Amy is very bright but she doesn’t talk to anybody.” This reserved way of being in the world has always been with me to some degree, though I’ve grown a great deal in confidence and voice.
What surprised me about learning ASL was how naturally and dramatically my communication style changed when I signed. I releaxed. I could feel my heart open. I felt engaged with the “listener” in a way I didn’t when I used my voice. The anxiety I usually had when I spoke disappeared. I found it easy to learn the facial expressions and visual styles of ASL.
Once when I was conversing with my Deaf teacher, she blinked, held up her hands, and shook her head.
What? I signed.
Sometimes I forget you’re a hearing person, she signed. You communicate like a Deaf person. Then she waved her hands on front of her face in a gesture I read as “It kinda freaks me out a little.”
I took this as a great complement. I knew she wasn’t referring to my technical skill, since I was just a beginner. But I had, at least a little, absorbed the essence of the Deaf way of communicating. I learned new, authentic ways of engaging in conversation that I still use today when I speak with someone:
Don’t hide what you feel.
The Deaf are generally not afraid to show their emotions. This makes communication so much clearer. The hearing are so accustomed to using vocal inflections to communicate feeling, we sometimes forget how much more grounding–and enjoyable–it is to to use the whole body to do this, through expressions, gestures, and posture.
Use your face.
Maintain eye contact. Use the expressive capabilities of your eyes. Remember the power of a smile when something is happy and a frown when something is troubling. Nod. Shake your head. Use your eyebrows.
Speak from your heart.
I mean this physically as well as emotionally. Imagine your voice growing from your heart and filling your body when you speak. Let your throat relax. Let your voice resonate within your whole self. This is tremendously grounding and allows for a natural, mindful pace in conversation.
The Deaf hug. A lot. And they hug each other with their whole bodies. They are comfortable withtheir physical selves. Their physicality helps to create strong bonds and lasting relationships.
Have you had an experience with another community or culture that taught you betters wasy of speaking or listening? How has your communication grown and evolved as you have grown and evolved?