Signs and Sense

I’m just back from a few days of vacation, following the SEJ conference. Had an interesting experience on the way home, driving solo across Colorado. I stopped at a Starbucks in Frisco, CO, and quickly realized that the guy behind the counter was deaf. Fortunately, a year or so ago, I’d attended an American Sign Language (ASL) class taught by my friend Steve DiCesare (a talented musician and ASL instructor).

It turned out that Steve’s most important point about ASL is true: It’s generally less important that you know the precise sign, and more important that you communicate visibly with your whole body and face. Here’s what I mean:

Truth be told, I remember very few specific ASL signs from Steve’s class. But I did remember how to order a cup of tea, very useful in this situation.

I made the sign for tea, and the clerk’s face brightened considerably. He gestured to the row of teas behind him. I saw one flavor I like, Tazo’s “Awake,” and fingerspelled the word. He clapped his hands, made the sign for “Awake,” which I repeated, and proceeded to fix me a large cup of hot tea – which I desperately needed, since I was very tired and still had a couple of hours’ drive ahead of me.

Then, he proceeded to engage me in a lively conversation comprised of equal amounts of signs, lipreading, voiceless whispers, fingerspelling, and gestures. It was fascinating. Whatever signs I remembered, he picked up on that and took the conversation off in that direction – including that I am not a big fan of raccoons since they have opposable thumbs and thus can open cabinets and camping gear and get into everything. Whenever I couldn’t recall a sign, I gestured with my hands, body language, and facial expressions to get the point across. He kept nodding vigorously, applauding some of my gestures and showing me their equivalent signs.

The high point of this exchange was when the clerk took me outside to meet his dog, Sierra – who demonstrated that he understands sign language very well by efficiently complying with a number of visual commands for various tricks. I was touched when the clerk made the sign for “speak,” and Sierra barked loudly and enthusiastically. His owner smiled. “I really wish I could hear that,” he said almost inaudibly.

It was a much-needed bright spot in what had been an otherwise difficult and exhausting day for me. It reminded me of the essence of communication: use whatever you can to get your point across.

Just like Steve Dicesare repeated time and again in class, with sign language it’s more important to communicate with your whole body (especially your face) than to get the signs correct. In other words, if you’re visually emphatic, you’ll probably make sense.

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