Tribal Communication: Evolving Expectations in the Field of Sign Language Interpreting

January 29, 2014

As membership in RID has grown exponentially, so has how we communicate between leadership and members. Dora Veith’s research examines changing communication norms from interpreting’s tribal roots to today’s “container” method.

San Francisco, 2007. My very first Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) national conference. I had been working in the field for two years and I was thrilled to be attending the national business meeting with my heroes in the field.

As I entered the meeting room, I heard a rumbling. Members were agitated. There was a recent leadership decision and members were unhappy. I heard, “How could they make that decision without including us? That is not our culture, our roots!” I understood. RID is a member-driven organization and leadership decisions should reflect member needs and goals. But, wait – I also heard leaders saying, “We did ask you! We sent emails asking for input. We posted requests for feedback on the website! We printed articles in RIDViews!” Hmmmm. I left the meeting wondering: how could such drastic miscommunication happen in an organization filled with communicators?!

Fast forward to 2012. I am sitting in front of my computer reading the course materials for my online class, Leadership Principles, through Regis University in Denver, Colorado. There is a brief lesson in the course about communication models, specifically comparing Tribal and Container communication models. I read how tribal communication is person-to-person, oral traditions and history passed on from mentor to mentee, how elders are revered and sought out, how decisions are based on what’s best for the community. I instantly think about RID’s history, a history rooted in reciprocity, mentorship, service, and partnership; the tribal description resonates.

Then I read about container communication and its dependency on technology, general announcements and reports, feelings of hierarchy in leadership, and how the decisions are often made for individual benefit, not the community. I am instantly transported to the 2007 business meeting. That’s it! That is what happened! We had container communication trying to satisfy tribal expectations. No wonder we struggled!

From Tribe to Container

Since 2007, I have heard mention in casual conversation that the sign language interpreting profession has changed because so many practitioners do not come from Deaf roots. Many, like me, have entered the interpreting profession through training programs and had no connection to the Deaf community before pursuing this career. Deaf consumers and practitioners complain that the cultural competency of practitioners is in decline because of this lack of connection. In her article, Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart, Betty Colonomos highlights this in a poignant way.

RID started with a tribal communication model. I have heard more than one of our seasoned interpreters say, “I used to be able to go to conference and know everyone there!” We have grown from that small founding group to a large organization. In addition, where we used to train other sign language interpreters through one-to-one mentorship, we now have formal degree programs. Out of necessity, we have become reliant on technology to communicate, and organizational communication comes in the form of general announcements and reports. We have become a container organization at the national level.

I think concerns about the change in RID, and the sign language interpreting profession as a whole, are valid, but I also suspect we are being a bit myopic. I am curious: if we step outside the cauldron of Hearing heart vs. Deaf heart and look at RID as a whole, what might we find? Is it possible that we are simply experiencing the results of unplanned organizational transformation caused by simple rapid growth as a profession?

Communication Style and Participation: A Closer Look

In 2013, when it became time to pursue my senior capstone at Regis, I was still haunted by the tribal vs. container lesson and decided to make it the cornerstone of my project. I tried to find other research about tribal and container communication, but other than a brief blurb in my old textbook, Leadership: A Communication Perspective (Hackman & Johnson, 2008), I was unable to find any research directly tied to this phenomenon. Most of the research is focused on proving or disproving Putnam’s theory of decline in social capital (Bowling Alone, 1995/2000) – that there has been a national trend of decline in membership organizations, resulting in fewer people building connections and supporting their community since 1952. I was unable to find any research about communication changes as grass root organizations grow and transform and the impact of this change on membership.

Consequently, I decided to do my own research. I developed a research question and a survey to see if there was a link between communication models and membership participation. I posted a link to the survey on the RID and BLeGIT Facebook pages. I also posted it to my local chapter, ColoradoRID, Facebook page and emailed it to local members.

What We Found

There were 70 respondents to the survey. Participants ranged in age from 20-something novice interpreters to 70+ -year-old semi-retired working sign language interpreters. Education levels ranged from associate degrees to master’s degrees. The survey participants were required to be ASL-to-English interpreting practitioners. Survey respondents remained anonymous.

With respect to experience, the respondents were split evenly: 50% had 0-10 years of interpreting experience and 50% had 11-30+ years of experience. This demonstrated a balanced perspective among respondents with significant history within the RID structure. 80% of respondents were trained in an IPP/ITP and 30% grew up in the Deaf community. 17% of respondents were introduced to the Deaf community through mentors, while 60% were introduced through their training program. While 97% of respondents were current RID members, only 76% belonged to their local chapters. 46% could not identify organizational leaders.

Communication Preferences

In terms of communication habits and preferences, the most significant findings were that 63% prefer to network in person at community socials or events. However, when asked to identify preferences, the number one preferred way to receive information from national and local RID groups was email, with social media a distant second. When I discussed this contrast with a colleague she said, “Of course! We want personal contact, but we don’t have time for it!”

While the data I collected was interesting and informative, it did not really answer the research question. However, I continued to analyze RID communication in light of the tribal model, since I was relatively new to the profession and had less personal experience with it.

The Tribe: A Closer Look at Who’s Who

Elders

So who is our tribe? Tribes have elders, water carriers, and general members. Elders can be defined pretty quickly as our most experienced interpreters and RID members. I also suggest that every interpreter with a Deaf parent is an elder by nature of their cultural intuition, regardless of their “professional” interpreting experience. In addition, every D/deaf person we meet is an elder in our tribe. They are the culture we try to serve, it is their language we use, who better to be offered the respect of a tribal elder?

Water Carriers

Max De Pree (1993), in Leadership Jazz, defines water carriers as those members who introduce new members to cultural norms and who share oral history. They help the new members of the tribe acclimate and avoid embarrassing pitfalls. As we have evolved, we have abdicated the water carrier role to our training programs. Maybe it is time for the local tribe to reclaim its water carrier responsibilities. The act of unpaid, casual mentorship of new interpreters strengthens connections and community ties while supporting the continuity of our cultural roots.

Members

The other, very important part of a tribe is that each member has a place – a role – and is a potential leader. We have identifiable leaders in our organization, people who have been vocal and visible for decades. It is easy to leave leadership to others. However, for a stronger organization, each member needs to take an active part in defining, contributing, and creating their local tribe and how their tribe interacts with the organization as a whole.

Bridging Container Communication and Tribal Expectations

As I apply the theory of tribal and container communication to our professional organization, I think logically—at a national and regional level—RID must continue as a container organization. Its efforts to engage members with social media have a role, but they don’t replace personal connections. Members have an opportunity to respond to RID issues in real-time, but the result is often a point-counterpoint interaction, not a real discussion.

I see that many local chapters have modeled their communication after the national office of RID; mass emails and social media have replaced personal interaction. I believe there is a better approach. The local chapter would be well suited to bring the benefits of tribal communication to members, acting as a bridge between container communication and tribal expectations. The local chapter can create a meaningful personal connection.

An example of how the tribe could bridge the container is the recent vote regarding the Deaf Parent Member at Large position on the RID Board. Almost all of the information regarding the motion and discussion about the motion rested on email and social media technologies (unless you were fortunate enough to attend the national conference). Even after Adam Bartley made an elegant plea in Mea Culpa: We Failed RID & Sign Language Interpreters with Deaf Parents, our container communication failed the second vote too. The fact that less than 10% of members voted nationwide is evidence of a system failure.

What would have happened if local chapters had offered this issue as a discussion point during local meetings? I suspect members would have become more invested in the outcome and more willing to cast a vote. Members might have felt invited into the discussion. It is easy to ignore an anonymous electronic invitation to, but that invitation has strength and impact when it is paired with an experience involving friends and colleagues.

Tribal and Container: The Best of Both

I believe RID has more options than just a container or a tribal communication model. I believe there is an ‘and’. It is a blend of both models that will lead us from the conflicts of organizational transition and toward a better, healthier, and effective professional organization.

Beyond the tribe. Beyond the container. We can become something more. After all, regardless of personal background, a commitment to effective communication is the common heart of every sign language interpreter.

References

De Pree, M. (1993). Watercarriers. Leadership Jazz. New York: Dell Publishing Company: 51-58 (kindle edition).

Hackman, M. & Johnson, C. (2008) Leadership: A communication perspective (5th ed). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc. 238-241.

Putnam, R. (1995 & 2000). Bowling alone. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Regis University. (Fall, 2012). COM 470 Leadership Principles. https://worldclass.regis.edu

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31 Comments on "Tribal Communication: Evolving Expectations in the Field of Sign Language Interpreting"

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dbowen-bailey
Member
Doug Bowen-Bailey
Thanks for those helpful comments and frame for thinking about the growth and development of our organizations and profession. I am someone who has become more invested in CIT, in part because it is a smaller organization – and perhaps has more of the tribal elements accessible. I have always told myself that it is about being an introvert – that I don’t really like the large crowds of an RID conference. (Which is true.) And it is also true that I value the work that RID is doing and am grateful for the people who carry water in that… Read more »
dveith
Member

Thank you for your kind words Doug. I, too, am an introvert and I understand your perspective on RID conferences. It is good to know CIT has maintained a tribal feel. Do you think that is by design? a happy accident? or the nature of educators?

dbowen-bailey
Member
Doug Bowen-Bailey
As for CIT, I think a good deal of it is related to size. Being an organization that is more like 500 members is a much different deal than one that has 16,000. Additionally, I do think that CIT has been able to keep a greater connection to our roots in the Deaf community. (4 of 9 board members are Deaf.) Yet there are some challenges with that, too. As an organization, we promote the value of ASL as a language for academic discourse. And, we also strive to be open and accessible for our international members, many of whom… Read more »
Member
Theresa Seiler

I agree that this is an issue and when we have had national representatives come to our Midwestern chapter, I have specifically asked for the brewing topics on the national level because we tend to be a few years behind. Instead we get established speeches on the structures of the national organization or how great the regional retreats are. I want a personal heartfelt explanation or persuasion on brewing topics that I may never even have considered yet before getting a blanket email to vote on the topic.

dveith
Member
I agree Theresa. It sometimes feels as if our leaders are uncomfortable with direct contact with members. I try to remember, they are volunteers who may or may not have any leadership experience or training before volunteering for RID. They may not know how to frame an explanation or may be uncomfortable stepping away from the scripted response. I know at the last Region IV conference our RID reps were fairly absent except during their presentations. I noticed because I had an idea I wanted to discuss and couldn’t find them. I wonder what we can do to make our… Read more »
Member
Diana Smith

For me the problem seems to be a lack of trust in other interpreters. When I was a budding ( by the way I still consider myself as such) I reached out to others I admired and got the proverbial ‘cold shoulder’ which made me less willing to reach out again. I think we need to be reminded that our work is so important that we should want our colleagues to be the best they can be. We need to help each other, PERIOD.

dveith
Member
Diana, it saddens me that a “cold shoulder” was your experience. I also still consider myself as a newbie and while not every other interpreter I have met has been warm and welcoming, most have been. I am something of an introvert, so I tend to join committees to develop working relationships. Then from that working relationship, I can feel comfortable asking questions to develop my skills. While many of us can go weeks without seeing another interpreter, none of us work alone. Our work reflects on each other and you are right, we do need to help each other… Read more »
Member
Jules Berner
Dora, Beautifully written and wonderful work and research. I feel so much of what you are saying is applicipal to me. I find myself complaining that I feel left out of the loop while simultaneously deleting those emails from RID or my local chapter. When I have more time, I flag them, so I can come back an vote ‘once I’ve had time to do more research’ – but that never happens because as you are highlighting it is through conversations and dialogue with peers, colleagues – deaf and hearing – that allow me to formulate my thoughts and decisions… Read more »
dveith
Member

I am so thankful you found a personal connection for this information. While I was doing the research I often wondered if I was consumed by my own passion or if anyone else would “get it.” I have found many kindred spirits along the way and am happy you, too, get it! I am pleased to see Shane Feldman is interested in these ideas and I hope other RID leaders also consider this information. I really do believe we can blend the two methods and create something greater!

Member
Rodney Lebon
As a much younger person entering the profession I find this article quite interesting. For my generation communicating through social media is very beneficial. We find it much easier and quicker to communicate this way. In the next decade or so the container communication might be more effective but the transition from tribal to container must have been too fast and did not match the needs and generation of the members. I also agree with your point about how interpreter’s enter the field. In the past it was through Deaf individual and now it’s through ITPs. Now in ITPs I… Read more »
dveith
Member
You bring up a great point about the generational differences regarding technological communication, Rodney. I confess, even though I am of the “older” generation, I adore and prefer email, Facebook, texting. It really startles my nieces and nephews because they think I am too old. I think it is the needs of the profession that keep me in the loop. However, I know several interpreters who hold true to your comments. Your question about the average age of the 10% who voted is excellent and one I am curious about too. Still, I believe, personal contact and relationships (wether virtual… Read more »
Member
Shane Feldman
Dora, Thank you for posting your profound thoughts on the evolution of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and how the association has adapted over time in engaging members and sharing information. Since joining RID as its Executive Director last year, I could not agree with you more in your assessment that your association, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has a history rooted in “reciprocity, mentorship, service, and partnership.” Identifying ways to enhance participation and provide for dialogue and discussion among RID members is an organization-wide priority. In fact, it is an area of such importance that… Read more »
dveith
Member
I greatly appreciate your interest in this work and how it can benefit RID. I am passionate in my belief that the local chapter is the key to a member-driven organization and that their ability to personally reach out to members has been underutilized by our organization. They have the ability to provide that personal relationship that leaders at the national level of RID cannot possibly extend to all 16,000 members. National, Regional, Local Chapters are not separate levels of our organization, but rather different aspects of a single unit that can and should work together, leveraging disparate strengths, to… Read more »
Member
Kevin Lowery
I recall that Shane Feldman, when he first took on the Directorship position, met with those who attended their area chapter conferences. He gave us a lot of opportunities to air our grievances and give RID our input at the highest level. At one point he said “this is your organization.” By that he mean that if RID needs to be changed in any way then that must come from the membership. To all the experienced interpreters, there are young newbies who need you to carry the water. I have a Deaf spouse and I am involved in Deaf Culture… Read more »
dveith
Member
Welcome to the profession and I hope you find those willing and able to take that time with you. I want to support you to lose the myth that “we eat our young.” I find it to be one of those sad statements that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have certainly had moments in my career where more experienced interpreters were not as nurturing or supportive as I would have liked, but I have come to understand they were incredibly passionate about wanting the best for our Deaf consumers and did not have the time, or maybe the tools, to… Read more »
Member
Nicole Brown
This was a very interesting and thought provoking article. As someone who is just now entering the field, I am eager to get connected with other professionals and begin contributing in any way I can. Clearly, container communication would not help to develop that connection as well as tribal communication would. While that is the perspective of a newbie, I’m sure that the same is true for fostering an already developed professional connection. I understand the need for container communication within the large, national organization of RID…and also for many instances within the local chapter. However, I believe the tribal… Read more »
Member

Thank you for your comments and for sharing your perspective. I hope you find those tribal connections and I look forward to welcoming you into our field. Just one more semester… Smile.

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[…] Dora Veith suggests the lens of tribal communication offers insight on how to improve communication between sign language interpreters and the organizations that support them.  […]

sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne
Hi Dora, What a great idea to look at the communication of an organization about communication! I remember when we were far more “tribal” as you called it. We trusted the members to make decisions. I feel the disconnect now when info is sent out from the office and we end up feeling as you described at the 2007 Conference. It is still happening. The last Board changed our documents without asking our feedback. Votes go out embedded in an email blast about lots of other things. I think that we can’t assume we all communicate the same way –… Read more »
dveith
Member
I LOVE your wish list. I think many of us share your perspective and your yearnings! I also think our leadership values us as much today as they did when we were 2,000. The dynamic has changed. It is far more intimidating to take risks leading 16,000 strangers than it was for 2,000 friends. This is where the local chapter can be so vital. If the local chapter is healthy and actively developing relationships with members, than they become a personal connection to the regional and national leaders. Information begins to flow horizontally instead of vertically and a circular exchange… Read more »
Member
Daryl Crouse

Very good wish list.. I’ve been thinking about some of the same things.

Member
Lindsey Antle

Dora, I really appreciate your research and thoughtful article. I admit to frequent griping about the “lack of adequate communication” from our state RID chapter and from RID itself. I often feel a disconnect from what’s actually going on.

Your article has helped me develop a framework for thinking this through. I am grateful that you’ve done this work and am eager to roll up my sleeves and get busy working on ways to help us communicators learn to communicate better.

dveith
Member

Thank you. I am grateful you found my research useful. My hope is many readers will take on the personal challenge of helping to create a new communication dynamic in our organization.

Member
Daryl Crouse
I had planned to hold off publishing this and admittedly there are refinements to be made. However, your article and the comments following lead me to post it here. Daryl Crouse for RID Secretary Envisioning Engagement The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf uses a decision making model based on democracy where fairness and equity is the basis for the organization to operate with group consensus. The Internet, social media and broadband adoption is creating a new challenge. Already, members are able to vote on the web, board members and committees meet via video conferencing. The challenge is to get… Read more »
dveith
Member
Thank you for sharing your article with me/us. I see how one discussion launches the other. While I speak about tribes and roles, you speak about experts and stakeholders, and I think they reflect each other. I see a place for the strength of the local chapter in your “decision making mechanism.” Again, I see a model where the information and discussion uses a circular model as opposed to the waterfall top-down model currently in place. Even if ideas come from a local chapter they are carried to the “top” before the idea is shared with the rest of the… Read more »
Member
Exactly.. One commenter above mentioned wanting to see what other people thought about an issue from a pro coperspective… I can imagine a cover flow, similar to what you see in iTunes with album covers, instead it could be a video comment, text, article, etc in a pro/con back and forth accordion, if a person agrees with the comment, etc, they could either give it a thumbs up or post another comment/blog in support of the previous one or if they disagreed they could post a con viewpoint from their perspective. As for experts, might call them subject matter experts.… Read more »
Member
Lindsay Kocen
I think part of the reason there are less CODA’s in the interpreting community is because of the education requirements. I know quite a few interpreters who used interpreting to pay for college because they were able to get certified before having a college degree, and having their first language ASL, they were perfectly qualified without the degree. Now days you have to have an Associates degree or even a Bachelors degree, and those are expensive and time consuming. The other thing I have seen in my local RID group is really a lack of any type of mentorship. I… Read more »
Member
Christine Walsh
As a current student in an interpreting program I have noticed that more and more notifications are being sent out via the internet and we are all to assume that they have been gotten. When these organizations first started out it was so much easier to be on a first name basis with everyone that was involved but as everyone has expanded and we have all gotten so much busier in our own lives and have so much more to do we now have to rely so much more on technology. I know that when I recently attended a local… Read more »
Member
Dora, Great article. I loved it. You really do your homework. I agree with another poster who commented on a “cold shoulder”; this seems to happen a lot. I’ve gotten this on more than one occasion. Both before and after I reveal I’ve grown up in the deaf community. Your article makes me think. There seems to be something wrong with how the organization as a whole is organized. Of course it goes without saying the volunteers are appreciated. But if we get such small attendance rates both in surveys and in voting, obviously something’s not right. Thanks again. Beautifully… Read more »
Member
Erika Ramirez

I would like to thank Dora Veith for taking the time to understand what is parting us from each other as a community. Having the wonderful opportunity of being an American Sign Language interpreter at the time has made me realize the importance of having Elders and Water carriers. I must say I feel privileged to have wonderful professors that have become my water carriers throughout this wonderful journey. My desire is able to learn more about the Deaf culture and become a water carrier for the future generations.

dveith
Member

Hi, Erika – Thank you for your kind comments. Best of luck in your studies. – Dora

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