Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for Cultural Competence

December 18, 2013

Cultural competence is a never-ending journey, especially for those interpreters who are learning about a new culture later in life. Marlene Elliott uses her own observations of call and response patterns to explore Deaf and hearing cultural norms regarding the phrase “I’m sorry.”

I’ve been interpreting professionally for 25 years. I like to think I’m reasonably good at what I do but from time to time something will dawn on me about ASL or Deaf culture that I’ve never known or realized before. How embarrassing! After all this time there are fundamental things I don’t know about the language I use and the culture I participate in. At the same time, how exciting! My learning is never done.

For me, I know my best teachers are the Deaf people who tolerate me so patiently, despite my many miscues. Not only have I made many mistakes, I’ve had to learn “how to learn” the Deaf way – by trusting my own eyes, really see what is in front of me and make sense of it. Then, because I’m hearing, I have to check it out with Deaf people.

Observation

This past year I realized something else about Deaf culture that I completely missed before and it really made me blush. I did what I usually do in these moments – I went to Deaf people I know and trust and ran my observation by them to see if I was noticing correctly. So far, everyone has affirmed this observation.

What I noticed is simply this:

ASL has expected patterns of exchange that I was never formally taught.  One basic pattern, which is critically important to master, calls for signing SORRY at specific points in a conversation in order to affirm the relationship during a time of differences. After the SORRY the rest of the interaction can proceed; without it, the relationship feels awkward or can even be derailed completely. This SORRY in ASL has a different use and meaning than sorry in English.

Credibility

As I approached writing about my observation I looked in journals for articles about the role and function of apology in a variety of cultures and about call and response structures in dialogic languages. I found plenty of articles on both. I’m keenly aware that in the hearing world credibility comes from science, research, and academics so it was natural for me to go there – I’m hearing. But I also know that in the Deaf world credibility comes from Deaf people and from Deaf experience. There is no higher authority. If I am to write credibly about trusting my own eyes, examining what I see and consulting Deaf people, what does it mean if I then turn around and cite hearing experts on other cultures or languages? Isn’t it enough that Deaf people say so? In the end, I have to believe it is. Every culture defines its own source and structure for credibility. If I’m going to be in the Deaf culture, then surely I can practice this tenet when I’m writing about it.

What’s the Word For That?

In the hearing world we know what is real and not real by what has a label. If there isn’t a label for something, it usually isn’t legitimate.  We love our labels! They explain so much. They give us a guide for how to think, feel, and act. It is part of our culture.

When I first began my interpreter training I was encouraged by my teachers to get involved with the Deaf World. They told me that “hanging out with Deaf people” was the best way to learn. They also admonished me to be careful because Deaf people had a way of expecting too much from others, of being dependent in an unhealthy way. “Be careful of your boundaries,” I was warned.

Around this time, researchers studying Deaf culture reported that RECIPROCITY was a primary feature of Deaf culture. Deaf people practicing RECIPROCITY support one another by contributing to the common good, not by only giving to those who have given to them or as a direct repayment to specific individuals. The same behaviors that I was warned to guard myself against were now explained and celebrated. Having a label allowed hearing people to re-frame them. Deaf people weren’t asking to be taken care of; they were inviting hearing people to participate in the common pool of mutual aid.

In my observations of difficult interactions between Deaf and hearing people I often see that when hearing people have a label for something, it is much easier to go along with what the Deaf people are doing. When we don’t have a label, we can have a tendency to stiffen up, to resist, and to end up in conflict.

I encourage all of us hearing people to recognize this tendency, know that it’s cultural, and realize that the Deaf World doesn’t feel the same need for labels to make their culture and their behavior legitimate so let’s take it easy on each other. Deaf people may not know what something is called but they sure know when it doesn’t feel right. We can trust them to guide us.

Culture Clash

Part One – be sure and take your turn!

We know that ASL is more interactive than English at most levels of register. This is well documented in linguistic research and confirmed by our own experience. The most formal ASL lecture will include interactive features that would be unthinkable in a formal English lecture. We also have plenty of proof that ASL is also more interactive in less formal settings. We know these required responses in casual conversation by their label – back channel feedback. If these features are absent in a conversation it is a noticeable absence, one that can have a serious meaning – refusing to engage, a certain kind of coldness or at best a show of cultural incompetence.

This need to engage in dialogue, this need to perform our part in any exchange is a hallmark of ASL. In dialogic languages the need for specific responses to specific kinds of stimulus is known as Call and Response. ASL, like any dialogic language, has standard Call and Response structures.

While these structures are relatively rare in American mainstream culture, a number of sub-cultures do have strong Call and Response patterns. Most people are familiar with at least a few. Black church has a strong Call and Response component where the responses come as individuals pepper the talk with affirmative encouragement. Catholic Mass has a highly scripted Call and Response component. 12-step meetings have short bursts of Call and Response exchanges during readings and introductions. Also, the military also has highly scripted Call and Response structures.

One thing we probably all know about Call and Response patterns is that we are keenly aware if there is a failure in the response. Anyone who has been to a workshop, meeting or seminar has had this experience. The person opening the session gives the call, “Good morning!” The required response from the participants is “good morning.” If the response is too weak, the call will be issued again with more emphasis. Normally more people will help with the second response, it meets expectations, and the event can begin. On the rare occasion that the second response is also too weak, instructions may follow and an emphatic call will be given for the third try. I have only rarely seen the third call fail because everyone is aware that the properly enthusiastic “good morning,” has to be delivered by the participants for the event to proceed. To refuse a third time would be more than awkward.

In spoken English I always know when I’m supposed to respond. I may not be able to explain why, but I recognize a call when I hear it. Having the label Call and Response has helped me also tune in to this aspect in ASL because I may not always recognize a call. At times when Deaf people repeat the same thing they’ve just said, but with more emphasis, I now ask myself, “is there something they’ve called for that I’ve failed to provide?”           

Part Two – How sorry is SORRY?

Every culture has it’s own role and function for apologies. In mainstream America there are generally two uses for the phrase, “I’m sorry.” The most common is an admission of guilt. It is an expression of a personal failing and fault. It means I admit I did something wrong and I will personally take responsibility for it. The second is an expression of sympathy, usually reserved for a serious loss or trauma.

Of course, other cultures have very different meanings for the phrase “I’m sorry,” and different understandings of apology. In Great Britain, when one person bumps into another the person who is bumped says sorry. In Japan there are many uses for apology and Japanese people tend to apologize frequently as ways saving face and reinforcing social status or hierarchy.

So what does SORRY mean in ASL? My observation is that it affirms my relationship with you over whatever else is happening. It means that somehow we will solve this problem together. It does not mean I did something wrong, it just means I acknowledge that this doesn’t feel good and I will work it out with you.

When is an apology called for in the Deaf World? This part is tricky for me. I know it when I see it now but I’m not sure my description will satisfy anyone. Probably the best way to understand it is to use your own eyes, notice where it occurs and check it out with Deaf people. I know it is unscripted. As far as I can tell, it is based more on a feeling, a kind of discord, or a type of interaction, than on a specific set of words or signs. There is something between us that feels bad – a conflict, a misunderstanding, or a difference of perspective. It can even be as simple as disappointing someone, even though their expectations might not have been my responsibility.

What happens when SORRY isn’t delivered at the expected point in a Call and Response exchange in the Deaf World? As in any other culture, the call is offered again with greater emphasis. The story, or “complaint” is repeated with more emotion. And if the apology is still not delivered, then what? In this case an explanation of what is wrong here is usually amped up. The problem in the relationship is now stated explicitly, in detail, often slowly, and with emphasis. If the apology is still not delivered this is a worst-case scenario. As a final attempt to save the relationship someone will probably be instructed to apologize. If the apology still isn’t delivered the relationship may be beyond repair. The connection would then be broken in a fundamental way.

Now What?

I can use this observation to continue my noticing and checking with Deaf people.

I’m may overuse my SORRY, like a child discovering a new word, until I know exactly where it fits. This is a natural part of incorporating a new skill. It’s ok.

I can continue to ask questions. I can look at where we, the sign language interpreting profession, have a need to use our SORRY in our collaborating with Deaf people. Have there been times when we have not said SORRY when we needed to? How has it affected our relationships?

Of course, my big question is what else don’t I know? What other mistakes have I been making without ever realizing it? Are there ways for me to improve my noticing, or inviting Deaf friends to tell me when I’m off? Can I be humble and know that corrections are an act of friendship and love, not a criticism of who I am? Can I be thankful that there is always more to learn even when I’m really embarrassed?

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30 Comments on "Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for Cultural Competence"

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Member

I wanted to throw out there what I have seen used as an apology in the Deaf community, please correct me if I’m wrong. Often I see Deaf individuals use the sign “WRONG” far more often than we say it in English. My observation of an apology is “WRONG ME” then the individual proceeds to fix the error. Thoughts?

melliott
Member
Marlene Elliott
Michael, I also see Deaf people use WRONG in very different ways than we would talk about being wrong in hearing culture. I think it is different than an apology. My limited understanding is that there are cultural differences in what it means to be wrong. In Deaf culture it’s not as big of a deal to be wrong and admit it. Correcting an error isn’t necessarily a failing. I do think WRONG ME might be closer to what sorry means in hearing culture than the sign SORRY, but not exactly the same. Let’s hope some Deaf people weigh in… Read more »
shafer
Member
Sarah Hafer
Hi Michael (and hi to you, Marlene, too! neat to see your article here, smiles), I am a Deaf and native ASL user myself along with a degree in linguistics, so my perspective on WRONG goes like this, it’s more of a bilingual teaching issue. Both hearing and Deaf ASL users learned that this sign WRONG means “wrong” when translated in English thus it influences some interpreters to wonder about things like you (Michael) said in your post above. What should have happened in ASL classes is when teaching the sign WRONG is NOT to make any connotation with English… Read more »
Member
Breana Cross-Hall
I notice this one too, Michael! It has been a topic of discussion at our VRS center–often when a Deaf user gets an interpreter on the screen but didn’t intend to, they will sign YOU WRONG. From my observations this doesn’t at all mean I (the interpreter) did anything wrong….it’s like it’s two separate sentences: YOU= “oh I got you?” WRONG= “that’s not what I wanted.” In another context I think it might be easier to use context clues to understand the meaning, but when feelings are involved it can be trickier. And Sarah brings up such an important point–if… Read more »
Member
This is a very thought provoking article. I will need to give myself some time to think through it and discuss it with Deaf friends. As I read it though, it brought to mind an experience I had recently when I taught a workshop about awareness and accountability. My focus was recognizing our miscues and errors and then admitting our errors and correcting them. I mentioned that I had found the Deaf individuals I worked with to be very kind and forgiving when I openly admitted an error and corrected the mistake. My perception was that the workshop would be… Read more »
melliott
Member
Marlene Elliott
Dawn, I would love to take that workshop! I hope you will be at Street Leverage live in Austin. I would love to chat with you! One thing I have learned for sure – it is not possible to become enculturated by taking college classes. I can learn about a culture but I can’t become part of it or really know it that way. I think many interpreters have the idea that they know Deaf culture because they’ve learned about some aspects of it in their training. The simplest way I know to articulate the differences are that hearing culture… Read more »
Member
I too struggled with that particular issue. Not only in how to support a struggling team, but to convince them to watch for my errors and be willing to pipe up if needed. I work full-time for the State of Utah. We have a full-time CDI and staff and he is probably been the greatest influence on me professionally in regards to these issues. When I waivered about the “code of silence” issue and not wanting to hurt feelings- he asked me a question that forever changed my perspective. He said, “Who are you trying to protect?”. My mind swirled… Read more »
Member
Darcy Smith
Marlene, Bravo! Your article was written in the bold spirit of inquiry paired with humility that so many of us aspire to. I say it is bold because we so often hide from the muddy waters of linguistic and cultural knowledge gaps. You dove right in and welcomed us to join you in the deep end! What a gift. You, Dawn and others brought up some great examples of learning from CDIs and from our Deaf friends. I especially liked Dawn’s example of being asked that question, Who are you trying to protect? Kudos to you Marlene and to all… Read more »
Member
I also attended an ITP and was warned to be cautious of the unhealthy dependency that can occur in the deaf/ hearing relationship. It was so stressed I honestly was very careful to limit my socializing tremendously! To the point I became frustrated because of obviously the community is where we learn the most! I have learned to try to find my balance in my relationships and have also realized this is just culture! I don’t have to fix, cross ethical boundaries, or have complete disconnection to have success as an interpreter. I am also a CODA and my journey… Read more »
Member

Thank you for this article. Enlightening, I hope to see more like this.
I also have noticed another misuse with, SORRY. In English diaogue we often use sorry as a call for something to be repeated as in “sorry, I didn’t catch that, what did you say, again?” But, it’s been naturally condensed to “sorry” and leaning our ear towards someone.
I mistakenly signed “SORRY” when I really was requesting an ASL user to fingerspell the last word again.
And it was wonderful that he asked me why hearing interpreters said sorry? Nothing to be sorry for. Better to sign AGAIN or MISS.

melliott
Member
Marlene Elliott

Justine, Good point! That is another way hearing people use sorry, for sure, and I think you have the meaning described very well there. Hearing people also use the shortened phrase, “pardon?” to mean the same thing, “would you please repeat what you just said, I couldn’t hear it.” Of course, they are not saying “excuse me” or “please excuse me” at all. Excellent observation. I feel like we should start a list! Ha!

Member
Terri Hayes
The English word “Please” would be a good one for interpreters (and educators of Deaf children) to get a grip on as well. “please” is not used in ASL as a request for or to do something in the way it is used in English. So in ASL the effort required to impose the word please is time consuming, momentarily confusing, and pretty meaningless. Deaf learn to say it (sign it) to appease hearing people – but its almost never used amoung Deaf people to make a polite request. The sign (often called by hearing people) “dont mind” is a… Read more »
Member
I would love to see this information in one of the CEUSONTHEGO.com workshops, or other online workshop. It amazes me how much I am still learning weekly about American Sign Language. I have been interpreting 13 years now, and wow! Thank you for sharing such great articles. I would love to work with a team who would tell me when I am not being clear, or when I have made a mistake, have wrong parameter. Mostly what I am told is “good job”, if that. Sometimes my Deaf clients let me know when I have used a sign choice that… Read more »
amindess
Member
Anna Mindess

Bravo, Marlene! I applaud your curiosity, self-reflection, process of checking out your assumptions and willingness to expose your learning process. I think we both share a fascination with figuring out the subtle ways that culture influences our perceptions and treasure the opportunities our profession and friendships afford us. I am grateful to my Deaf friends who open the door to their world so I can get glimpses of their perspectives.

hthomasmowery
Member

Marlene, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and am grateful for the label you offer as Call and Response. I’ve never seen the use of SORRY described in this way. I completely understand that quantifying (in English) when and how SORRY would be fitting and necessary is an arduous task, and I appreciate you tackling this. Framing these interactions as Call and Response helps me to better understand my role as an attentive, accountable interlocutor, and myself as a member of the Deaf community.

abrace
Member
Aaron Brace
Marlene- As informative as the content of your article is, what I truly appreciate is the model it provides for continued introspection and external inquiry. It puts meat on the bones of our knowledge that glossing does not equal interpreting. It also shows that grappling with gaps in our knowledge, however far along we are in our careers, is nothing but good. It makes us better, it fosters better ties with Deaf people (individually and with the community we’re in), and it’s fun. It’s also a model of transparency in one’s process that many interpreters may find uncomfortable, but that… Read more »
Member

Hi,
In the ITP students are encouraged to be competent and confident in the English language by knowing and availing themselves with more than one synonym for any one word or phrase in order to respond or voice according to the individual Deaf/deaf person. “Sorry” seems to be an example of needing to make good use of a thesaurus. People are people. Applying the correct synonym or adjective appropriately in a given situation is part of the responsibility of viable sign language interpreters, advocates and friends of the Deaf/deaf, people.

Member
Barbara Pilato Haschmann
Interesting! Thank you for posting, Marlene. I remember you 🙂 I am a 61 year old hearing woman of Italian-American descent who has been interpreting for 35 years in and around Rochester, NY (and occasionally internationally). My parents were born here, but all four of my grandparents came to America from Sicily. I have been blessed with a great deal of “success” as a freelance interpreter (by which I mean I have never lacked for work, and have not had to chase it). Yet I could never quite figure this out, since there was very little pure ASL taught in… Read more »
Member
Barbara Pilato Haschmann

Wait, make that “becoming involved in controversies” rather than “receiving criticisms.”

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[…] Marlene Elliott suggests Deaf cultural competence among sign language interpreters might very well begin with an understanding of the word sorry.  […]

Member
Bonnie Gibson-Brydon
Thank you for this article. As a presenter of Ethics (She Scared Me @ Hello!), I often address the “Respect for Clients” incorporates so much more than “showing up for the job”. I believe this tenet in our CPC incorporates cultural consideration not often addressed. Pausing to consider cultural aspects behind the language shows up in the quality of our work! I read your article Marlene when it was first published, and started to simply watch both my awareness and the use in the community. As I have been working as a professional interpreter since 1977 I have learned the… Read more »
Member
Karen Latimer

Great article. I really enjoyed your perspective!

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[…] a previous article, Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for Cultural Competence, I talked about using our eyes and our noticing skills to improve our cultural competence. So too […]

Member
Really useful article, thank you. I’m an interpreting student in the UK. I suspect that much of what you say in the specifics also applies to BSL (I’ve noticed a similar use of “DON’T-MIND”) but as I know I am very far from competent in BSL and Deaf cultural practices I would be very grateful if anyone with greater knowledge than I can comment on how much of the specifics of language use (like SORRY and WRONG) also work in BSL. I’d be very grateful – and I think it would be interesting to US readers also as a cross-cultural… Read more »
melliott
Member

Clara, I would love to see more cross-Atlantic collaboration!

Member
Matthew Disch

My perspective attains through my experience at Deaf institute SORRY (in ASL) comes in different forms and meanings with unique non-manual expressions rather than degree of emphasis. Emphasis is used to tell how deeply one is SORRY about, but does not necessarily reflect which “sorry” is meant.

Member
Celeste DeRosa
I am an interpreting major. This article really sparked my interest. I feel like the more I hang out with Deaf people the more I understand Deaf culture. At times, I come across things that are confusing and at that moment I am not sure what the right thing to do is. For example, in Deaf culture when two people are signing and you have to ask someone a question you just tap them on the shoulder and interrupt mid conversation. When this happened to me, I felt awkward and dumb. I was just standing there waiting and my deaf… Read more »
Member
Callan Reed

Thank you so much for this article. It was a fantastic read.
As an ASL student, I am eternally grateful for my Deaf Culture class, which taught me many things that I never knew as a hearing person. The more I learn about deaf culture the more I love it. However, I am afraid of stepping on someone’s toes by accident without even realizing it. I feel that there is a vast amount of things that I need to learn, and honestly I feel a little nervous.

Member
Desiree Kirst

Ms. Elliott,

I would be very interested in sharing this article with several other interpreters. Have you found any video samples that illustrate this Call and Response?

Member
Desiree Kirst

Ms. Elliott,

I would be very interested in sharing this article with several other interpreters. Have you found any video samples that illustrate this Call and Response?

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