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Civility Within the Interpreting Profession: A Novice’s Perspective

Civility Within the Interpreting Profession

Recommitting to the principles of civility aligns sign language interpreters with the Code of Professional Conduct while fostering positive interactions both online and in person.

I have always believed strongly in the school of hard knocks. As a sign language interpreter, I have held the opinion that sensitivity is not a luxury we can afford if we want to make it in this field; if you cannot accept criticism, this is not the job for you. My opinion in the last several weeks has changed.

[Click to view post in ASL]

According to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), sign language interpreters are required to “maintain civility towards colleagues, interns and students of the profession.” (RID code of professional conduct, Tenet 5.1, 2009).  Unfortunately, with the proliferation of websites like Facebook, Twitter, personal web pages, public forums, and other forms of social media, this tenet seems to be disappearing into the abyss of the internet faster than you can say “LOL J/K everyone.” I can assure you that not everyone is “laughing out loud,” and commentators are not “just kidding.”

I often find myself bearing witness to those who are using the internet as a platform to discuss their distaste for novice interpreters. Previously, when I would check my usual blogs, forums, and Facebook pages, I would ignore these comments. I did not realize, however, that it was not only novices who were the targets of these comments on the internet; seasoned and certified interpreters were being targeted as well.  Despite the fact that these comments sometimes hurt or have made me doubt myself, I ignored them and kept practicing. After all, criticism comes with the territory – if we are not struggling, we are not growing.

How Far is too Far?

One day, I was shown an interpreter’s personal website which was used to promote their services. However, I noticed that this interpreter also used this website as a platform to discredit other interpreters who were deemed “unfit” by this person. This included sharing an – in their opinion – “unqualified” interpreter’s picture, full name and a detailed account of their interpreting errors. A few weeks later, on a different forum, an interpreter posted an image of a novice interpreting and commented that this novice should not be interpreting. To the credit of the forum’s administrator, this post was later removed with a disclaimer stating that this kind of behavior was unacceptable, but as we all know, the internet is forever. Accepting a job you are not qualified to interpret is most certainly unethical, but there must be a better and more ethical way to resolve the issue of qualification that does not involve potentially slanderous behavior.

Time for Change

Shortly after witnessing these actions on the internet, I attended Street Leverage’s Street Tour along with a diverse group of sign language interpreters ranging from current ITP students to seasoned nationally certified interpreters with more than 20 years of experience. Betty Colonomos stood before us and asked a very profound question: “What are you afraid of ?” We each took turns writing down our interpreting-related fears on posters. The result was astounding. Everyone in the room had the exact same fear: fear of being judged by other sign language interpreters.

After realizing we all were sharing the same fears, Betty encouraged us to dig a little deeper; what came to the surface was some serious interpreter-on-interpreter crime. As it turns out, not only were the novices being treated unfairly, but those with many years of experience felt that they, too, were being looked down upon for not having the training or education that some of the new interpreters had. I listened as interpreter after interpreter shared their own stories of slander. ITP students, novices, certified interpreters, and veterans of our field, at one point or another, had all experienced other interpreters tearing them down. I learned that this issue started long before the internet, and it is having a pervasive impact on our community. After listening to us all weekend, Betty left us with a final thought, “instead of being a victim, become an activist.” This is exactly what I intend to do.

A Case for Civility

P.M. Forni, the author of Choosing Civility and the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, describes civility as

“being aware of others and weaving restraint, respect and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness…It is not just an attitude of benevolent and thoughtful relating to other individuals; it also entails active interest in the well-being of our communities” (2002).

This is a concept that we, as professional sign language interpreters, are quickly losing sight of. This lack of civility is creating a chasm in our community. It needs to stop. Maintaining civility towards one another is the only way to bring us together. Without adopting a civil attitude, we are going to  continue to tear each other apart.  

It Starts With Accountability

In 2012, Carolyn Ball wrote a similar article for Street Leverage asking us what role civility has in the interpreting profession. Civility begins with ourselves. If each sign language interpreter were to promise never to tear down another interpreter, to maintain civility and to keep the best interests of their counterparts in mind; the change would be enormous. We can repair this rift we have created. I still believe in the school of hard knocks, I still believe that you need to struggle in order to grow; I believe in civility, too. It is possible to believe in both. If we promise to support one another and be mindful of our actions, both on and off the internet, we can create an environment that is more conducive to effective interpreting.  


If you find yourself frequently frustrated by other sign language interpreters, reach out, instead of calling them out. I highly recommend Forni’s book, Choosing Civility. As a person who used to think civility was just “being nice” or “sugar coating things,” I learned, after reading this book, that this is not the case at all. You can still have grit and be gracious. You can still be assertive and agreeable. It all starts with a choice to hold ourselves accountable both on and off the internet.

Questions for Consideration:

  1. What are three things you can do to increase the level of civility in your professional life?
  2. How can you hold yourself and others accountable for internet interactions regarding other interpreters?
  3. What can you do to support other interpreters in supporting the concept of civility in the profession?
  4. Can you list several concrete ways we can model civility to our peers both online and in person?

Related Posts:

Accountability: A First Step to Harmony Among Sign Language Interpreters? Sabrina Smith

It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter by Brian Morrison

The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter by Stacey Webb


Ball, C. (2012). What Role Does Civility Play in the Sign Language Interpreting Profession. Retrieved October 21st, 2015 from http//

Forni, P.M (2002). Choosing Civility: The Twenty Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct. (2009) Retrieved October 26th, 2015 from http//

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Where Do We Go From Here? 5 Stages of Change for Sign Language Interpreters

Where Do We Go From Here? 5 Stages of Change for Sign Language Interpreters

As sign language interpreters, we stand at a crossroads. Do we maintain the status quo or act as change agents by investing & engaging, collectively, in the transformation of our profession?


People in our field are talking a lot about change. Our attitudes toward the Deaf community and fellow sign language interpreters have to change. Our professionalism has to change. There is a call for greater transparency. StreetLeverage contributors have written about the need for change in our national organization. The discussion about change is everywhere.

[Click to view post in ASL]

In “Sign Language Interpreters: Is it Me?”, Brian Morrison points to the questions we should be asking ourselves, and guides us from examining how to solve problems to examining our commitment to change. The question I find myself now exploring is, “How does change happen?”

Transtheoretical Model

Many have written on the subject of change. In 1983, Prochaska and DiClementi developed the “Transtheoretical Model”1 , which I will use to frame my discussion here. The model describes five stages of change: pre-contemplation, contemplation, determination, action, and maintenance.

In the pre-contemplation stage, a person is unaware that there is a problem. They may think that others who point out a problem are just exaggerating, being judgmental, or imagining it. They may complain about the same problem in others yet fail to see it in themselves. Prochaska and DiClementi define four types of pre-contemplators.

  1. Reluctant pre-contemplators are those who, through lack of knowledge or inertia, do not want to consider change. They have not become fully conscious of the impact of the problem. In our profession a reluctant pre-contemplator may think, “I continue to get hired, so my interpreting work must be fine.”
  2. Rebellious pre-contemplators have a heavy investment in their current behavior and in making their own decisions. They are resistant to being told what to do. Such a person in our field may say, “That person is always critical of interpreters. It’s not about me.”
  3. Resigned pre-contemplators have given up hope about the possibility of change and are overwhelmed by the problem. This person may concede, “Second language learners of ASL will never be as clear as native language users. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
  4. Rationalizing pre-contemplators have all the answers. They come armed with reasons why their behavior is not a problem. This interpreter may justify, “The Deaf people I work with are highly educated. I tell them what I hear, and they figure it out.”

The second stage of change is contemplation. In this stage a person is willing to accept that there may be a problem. They are also willing to consider the pros and cons of changing but may still be ambivalent about the need to take action.

The third, fourth and fifth stages are ascribed to those who have made a clear decision to change. They have identified what needs to change (Stage 3 – Determination), taken steps toward their goal (Stage 4 – Action), and work to maintain their path of improvement (Stage 5 – Maintenance).

When we are open to change, we spend our time learning, analyzing, and asking questions. Every job is seen as an opportunity to grow. That is the character of the third, fourth and fifth stages of change.

Getting Beyond Pre-contemplation

What happens when others see what I could change but I don’t see it myself? When I try to examine my own problems, what might I be missing? If I don’t see a problem, how can I know if one exists? These conundrums put us squarely at the first stage, pre-contemplation.

Fortunately, there are multiple roads out of pre-contemplation. Some of these roads we seek out and deliberately walk. Others we must be led to. Below, I have outlined four forms that these roads can take: 1) honest self-inquiry, 2) a life threatening condition, 3) public outcry, or 4) a trusted colleague opening a door for us to gain self-awareness.

  1. Honest self-inquiry begins when there is a willingness to look at whatever comes up. An opportunity arises when a certain personal trait or habit becomes apparent. At a particular moment, something that I did, thought, or said makes me question my behavior or habit. In bringing my attention to this behavior, I see it more clearly. Recognizing it changes my understanding of the behavior and of myself. It is possible that, over time and with continued attention, the behavior will shift or even be replaced with something more congruent with my sense of self.

For example, I find myself saying small, cutting remarks to my spouse. I conveniently ignore that I do this because it is too painful to admit to having this unloving, horrible characteristic. In a moment when I am more present, I notice his reaction to one such cutting remark. I stay attuned to myself, watching my impulse to cut him down. The emotion or thought that sparked the cutting remark is revealed. It is old, rooted in my childhood. In that moment there is new understanding, and I am changed. The impulse to cut him down dissolves. A change has occurred that I didn’t “make” in the traditional sense, but it occurred as a result of examining the impulse.

  1. A life-threatening condition is another road out of pre-contemplation. Often when we confront our mortality, the reality of having a finite time on earth can spark increased introspection. Old grudges may dissolve and die-hard opinions seem less important. Change occurs because I re-examine my values. While one doesn’t invite a walk down this road, when it presents itself, there is opportunity.
  1. Public outcry can backfire and may lead to hurt feelings and resistance. In our field, demands to revoke a sign language interpreter’s certification or remove a person from a position of power can garner support. But the target of this outcry rarely perceives it as designed to inspire positive change. Still, it can be an important tool. I remember when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The ensuing outcry sparked many to look at their own attitudes toward race. Recent racialized events have sparked similar self-reflection.
  1. A trusted colleague, finally, is key to fostering change. This is an important relationship. When I am actively engaged with this colleague, we work to develop the mutual trust needed to broach sensitive subjects. I don’t have an ulterior motive to change the person, but instead have a wish to understand their perspective. We see each other as we are – peers. We start by being willing to find out where we stand, what we think, and what our wishes are. The process itself becomes the influencing factor for conscious change.

Together, we can investigate and reveal our flaws, share our inner processes, and examine our values. Together, we can discuss what we personally can do to include more Deaf people in RID. Together, we can look at available jobs and consider what skills and qualities are required to do them. Together, we can explore the difficulty that arises when a team interpreter doesn’t want to discuss the work. It is important that we invite our colleagues to the party, not drag them there.

From Interpersonal to Organizational

RID is made up of individuals, each at their own stage on the path. Some are contemplating their role in improving conditions, while others are in pre-contemplation. Each person is worthy of our time if we are invested in change, but it will never happen through complaining, finger-pointing, ignoring, or backstabbing. It will come only through a willingness to work together. For my part, I was drawn to this profession not only because of an interest in people and a knack for language, but also because it provided opportunities for self-exploration and improvement as a human being in relation to others.

So, I turn the question back to us as professionals. Are we prepared to enter into this type of relationship with our fellow interpreters? If yes, then we need to be willing to spend time in the process. While the stages of change provide a framework for understanding how change happens, our work is to observe, engage, and enter into meaningful dialogue in order to understand multiple perspectives. I believe that each of us can be an agent of change in a way that promotes the profession, our organization, and ultimately, our humanity. Will you join me?

Questions for Consideration

  1. What can I do to be more proactive and interactive with others in the field?
  2. What are my experiences of moments of change?  How do those experiences help me understand this process?
  3. Among the four types of pre-contemplator, which type am I? (We are all pre-contemplators about something.)
  4. What holds me back from being an agent of change? What would I need in order to begin?

Related Posts

Sign Language Interpreting’s Long Adolescence by Stephanie Jo Kent

Replenishing Sign Language Interpreting: Extraction Exchange by Sandra Maloney

Accountability: A First Step to Harmony Among Sign Language Interpreters by Sabrina Smith


Gold, M. (2013). Stages of Change. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 19, 2015, from

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Sign Language Interpreting’s Long Adolescence

Sign Language Interpreting's Long Adolescence

The field of sign language interpreting has the opportunity to leave organizational adolescence behind. By connecting their emotions to the challenging tasks ahead, interpreters can foster growth and move the field to the next level.

Historical Context

Last summer I was unable to attend RID’s Convention in New Orleans, or even watch the livestreaming. Instead I followed developments through Facebook friends’ posts and comments and tweets at the conference hashtag, #RIDNOLA15. Through the lens of social media, there were two conferences: one full of camaraderie, fellowship and happy reunions, the other full of angst. Meanwhile, the bold move by the Board to suspend certification testing was not completely without warning. I remember last year (2014), at the RID Region 1 Conference in Boston, President Dawn Whitcher did mention that the Board was exploring the possibility of alternative structures. The open question now is whether RID can grow up enough to pass through this coming-of-age opportunity.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Since I joined the profession in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I have been astonished and fascinated by the organizational and cultural dynamics. The general behavior patterns today compared with then—twenty-five years ago—are essentially the same. On the one hand, this is discouraging. On the other hand, Deaf presence and authority has increased, so there is obvious change! But new people entering the field continue to exhibit problematic behaviors and react to feedback in the same ways as most did back then, and Deaf people are still complaining about the same kinds of problems (especially inadequate fluency and lack of intercultural skills). In light of this, we do still have a professional organization dedicated to sign language interpreting! It is an incredible testament to our Past Presidents, Board Members and Staff that RID has never imploded from the pressure cooker of oppression versus social justice.

Making Sense of Where We Are, Here and Now

A tool that helps me make sense of the oppression-social justice pressure cooker is a descriptive model of group development called “the life cycle of groups” (Weber, 1982). Weber’s model draws on Bruce Tuckman’s (1965) famous four stages of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing) and refines it. Weber’s additional details on the interpersonal, leadership and task issues that a group has to resolve at each stage provide insight into some of the long-standing issues RID members must face.

Weber renames the stages Infancy, Adolescence, Adulthood and Transforming. As you can guess, Adolescence corresponds with Tuckman’s Storming phase. The behavior patterns of a group’s Adolescence include emotional responses (e.g., anger, frustration, confusion) to the demands of being an organization (such as developing and following rules), attacks on leadership, and a need for order (which may or may not be a conscious realization of every member). What are the interpersonal, leadership and task issues of a group that bring out such emotionally-inspired behavior?

For a group to move through Adolescence to Adulthood, members have to deal with matters of power and influence while maintaining individuality and questioning differences. This is a tall order for anyone, in every group! The acid test involves the decision-making process: coming to agreement on how the organization says it will make decisions, and then how well the organization conforms to how it says it will make decisions.

In short, individuals a) need confidence in the group’s processes and b) to work through their personal needs for control in order for the group, overall, to grow.


I happened to see the Pixar movie about emotions soon after the conference ended. Inside/Out is a dramatization of the inner life of a young girl whose life gets upended when her parents move from a town in Minnesota to San Francisco. We witness the play of the five basic emotions—joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust—in her mind, and also see the results of how she’s feeling in her behavior. Two comments from friends who also saw the movie stuck with me. One friend was glad that the film “showed the reality that you cannot have joy without sadness.” The other friend noticed “how hard joy has to work in order to have any effect.”

Applying Pixar to RID, I realized that what I first thought of as two different conferences (as it appeared via social media) was instead a demonstration of how different people (or the same person at different times) at #RIDNOLA15 were expressing only three of the basic emotions: anger, disgust and joy. Missing were fear and sadness. While watching Inside/Out, I noticed something about the relationships among all five emotions. I actually went back to watch it a second time in order to confirm my observation. In the daughter’s mind, Joy is the leader. She corrals and herds Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger, and they look to her to do this.

The mom’s mind is different.

A Counter-Intuitive Way Forward?

The mom’s emotions are guided by Sadness.

This has left me wondering if the members of RID are locked into something called “Basic Assumption Groups.” The idea comes from a psychoanalytic approach to reading the unconscious of a group based on the behaviors of its members. Are we locked into sides: anger and disgust battling joy?  Meanwhile, fear is largely unexpressed (except disguised as anger or disgust), and sadness rarely enters the conversation (even though it is ever-present).

If we consider Weber’s “life cycle of groups” seriously, it offers insight into why groups get stuck in adolescence. There’s foundational work that needs to be done in “infancy,” the stage before the storm. If this is left un-done (or not done well, or needs to be re-done), group members do not share enough common expectations about what the organization can and should do.

The major intra-personal and interpersonal task of the infancy/forming stage of a group involves membership criteria. Individual members have to work through their own inclusion issues: if they do or do not want to belong. It seems that President Whitcher and the Board have given us a chance to rebirth the organization and re-define RID from the ground up.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree with the author that the patterns of behavior in the organization are about the same as they were twenty-five years ago? Why or why not?
  2. Does the framework of the “life cycle of groups” seem like a good tool for analyzing what’s going on with the organization and its members? Why or why not?
  3. Do you have different or additional ideas about the emotions expressed during/about the 2015 RID Convention?
  4. How do you managed your personal need for control?

Related Posts:

Interpreter Education: History is a Relentless Master with Dennis Cokely and Anna Witter-Merithew

Does the Past Hold the Answer to the Future of Sign Language Interpreting? by Carolyn Ball

Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field by Lynnette Taylor


Tuckman, Bruce. (1965). “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups.” Psychological Bulletin63(6): 384-399.

Weber, Richard C. (1982). The Group: A Cycle from Birth to Death, in Reading Book for Human Relations Training, 7th Edition. L. Porter and B. Mohr, Eds. Alexandria, VA: NTL Institute.

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Sign Language Interpreters and the “F” Word

Sign Language Interpreters and the 'F' Word

Receiving feedback is as much an art as giving it. By crafting opportunities to receive feedback, sign language interpreters can begin to erase the negative connotations that often accompany the “F” word.


Several hours after a recent interpreting assignment, I received an email from my team interpreter that simply said, “Can we chat about today?” I had an immediate hunch that I was soon to receive feedback about my performance and, despite the year of study I’ve committed to better understanding accountability and the art of receiving feedback, I froze.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Thanks to Sheila Heen and Doug Stone,1 I had the tools to prepare me for this feedback conversation and so I found a spot to sit that was free of distraction and called my colleague. For the next half hour, we successfully navigated what could have been a stressful conversation. As it turns out, I behaved that day in ways that were off-putting, and though I’d like to believe these behaviors were unrecognizable to an outsider, what mattered was that all of them impacted how my colleague experienced the day.

Sign Language Interpreters and Accountability

As sign language interpreters and engaged citizens of the world, we have countless daily opportunities to both give and receive feedback, which means we also have countless opportunities to have conversations that are a success, that go awry, and that fall somewhere in between. Let’s pause for a moment. Can you recall the last time you:

  • worked with an interpreter whose product was not up to snuff;
  • associated with a colleague who didn’t walk the talk in her or his commitment to the Deaf community;
  • were booked to team an assignment with a colleague who is notoriously late; or
  • worked with someone whose behavioral decisions were a turn-off for Deaf and hearing people, and drew undue attention?

Turning the tables, what about the last time a colleague thought you were any of the above? I believe if we are all better prepared to try on ideas that may at first seem off-point, that we’ll develop a more nuanced capacity for empathy and learning, which will in turn make us more proficient practitioners.

Feedback: Challenge or Opportunity?

Feedback is certainly not always a challenge to receive. It “…includes any information you get about yourself. In the broadest sense, it’s how we learn about ourselves from our experiences and from other people — how we learn from life. … So feedback is not just what gets ranked; it’s what gets thanked, commented on, and invited back or dropped.”2 Because we’ll come into contact with solicited and unsolicited feedback every day, from colleagues and not, practicing the art of receiving it is a worthwhile investment for all.

The real leverage is creating pull.”3 

Yes, it’s true that if everyone was more adept at sharing feedback, then we may be able to devote less attention to the art of receiving it. One might make the case, however, that because feedback comes in many forms and from many different people, the only control we will have on how “appreciation (thanks), coaching (here’s a better way to do it), and evaluation (here’s where you stand)”4 are delivered is in how they are received (in other words, we have no control on how feedback is delivered). The giver can be as eloquent or offensive as they choose; it is the receiver who decides whether or not to listen to what is said, how to interpret it, and what to do with it.

Shifting the Feedback Dynamic

With this awareness, I’m hopeful that the sign language interpreting field can begin to shift the feedback dynamic. Instead of investing most of our energy in refining the art of giving feedback, let’s get on board with the receiver soliciting feedback and guiding its provision. In fact, seeking feedback, for better or worse, supports one’s job satisfaction and allows more creativity to solve problems more easily.5 With a job that has been deemed the most cognitively complex task of which humans are capable,6 it’s likely useful to free up some mental energy for problem-solving.

“Creating pull is about mastering the skills required to drive our own learning; it’s about how to recognize and manage our resistance, how to engage in feedback conversations with confidence and curiosity, and even when the feedback seems wrong, how to find insight that might help us grow. It’s also about how to stand up for who we are and how we see the world, and ask for what we need. It’s about how to learn from feedback—yes, even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood.”7

Let’s move forward together — toward a place where we are genuinely interested in being held accountable and one where we seek feedback of all sorts, so as to enrich the practice of interpreting across the profession.

Managing Relationship, Truth, and Identity Triggers

Despite one’s uneasiness at receiving honest observations about their work, actions, and the impact these have on others, it is possible to remain present during the course of any feedback conversation. It’s common to feel triggered into resistance and self-preservation when receiving feedback, but if you can be aware of the reason behind the trigger, it becomes a tool for engagement and inquiry. Heen and Stone outline three different types of triggers: relationship, truth, and identity.8 Your connection to and thoughts about the feedback giver, the truthfulness of the feedback content, and what you believe it says about you can all derail an opportunity for growth, but they can also be managed so as to optimize learning.

Heen and Stone offer eight strategies for managing truth, relationship, and identity triggers:

    1. Separate Appreciation, Coaching, and Evaluation9to ensure alignment of the giver’s intent and the receiver’s understanding;
    2. First Understand10to examine “how to interpret feedback—where it’s coming from, what it’s suggesting you do differently, and why you and the giver might disagree”11;
    3. See Your Blind Spots12to acknowledge that the challenges to seeing ourselves as we really are can be overcome, and develop the tools to do so;
    4. Don’t Switchtrack: Disentangle What from Who13to help you remain open to learning even when the feedback is poorly timed and delivered;
    5. Identify the Relationship System14because “understanding relationship systems helps you move past blame and into joint accountability, and talk productively about these challenging topics, even when the other person thinks this feedback party is all about you”15;
    6. Learn How Wiring and Temperament Affect Your Story16to more fully appreciate why our emotional responses to feedback vary so greatly and why we recover from it in different ways as well;
    7. Dismantle Distortions17to unpack the feedback we receive and, absent of our emotionally-laden framing, understand what it actually means; and
    8. Cultivate a Growth Identity18for those who may hold back from seeking feedback, and because we connect with the world, each other, and ourselves differently, it is useful to “move from a vulnerable fixed identity to a robust growth identity that makes it easier to learn from feedback and experience.”19 

For the sake of word count and reader attention, I will not go any further into these strategies for this article. I will, however, elaborate more on each of these and their application for interpreters (and more) at the StreetLeverage – Live 2016 event in Fremont, CA.

Seeking Honest Feedback

In addition to the strategies briefly outlined above, Heen and Stone offer a question we can ask our colleagues, friends, and other loved ones. If we are truly invested in bettering ourselves and shaping our interactions with people who work with us, we can ask this one question to solicit honest feedback: “What’s one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, that’s getting in my own way?” 20

The next time we’re with an interpreting colleague and/or another Deaf individual with whom we’re working, let’s ask them, “What am I doing that is inhibiting my language choices and production?”, “What am I doing that is getting in my way, in terms of my commitment to the Deaf community?”, “What am I doing that is leading others to say I’m notoriously late?”, “What am I doing – or failing to do – that’s drawing this undue attention from the Deaf and hearing individuals at today’s assignment?” or another question that helps us appreciate the way in which the world engages with us as compared with how we see ourselves engaging with the world. The more we ask this of one another, the more we will shift the way we look at feedback. I predict it will become less of a “four letter word” and more of an open and ongoing conversation that allows us to remain accountable to the Deaf community, one another, and ourselves.

Questions for Consideration:

  1. Think back to some of your most successful feedback sessions as an interpreter. What were the conditions that contributed to their success?
  2. What were some of the conditions that contribute to less successful feedback sessions and how might you change those conditions in the future?
  3. How can sign language interpreters support and promote honest dialogue in our local communities based on the model presented here?

Related Posts:

Accountability: A First Step to Harmony Among Sign Language Interpreters? by Sabrina Smith

Vulnerability: A Collaboration Killer for Sign Language Interpreters by Laura Wickless

What Role Does Civility Play in the Sign Language Interpreting Profession by Carolyn Ball


1Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). Penguin Group USA.

2Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014a). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p. 4). Penguin Group USA.

3Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014b). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p. 6). Penguin Group USA.

4Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014c). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p. 18). Penguin Group USA.

5Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014d). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p. 6). Penguin Group USA.

6Steiner, G. (1975). After Babel: Aspects of language and translation. New York: Oxford University Press.

7Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014e). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p. 6). Penguin Group USA.

8Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014f). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p. 16). Penguin Group USA.

9Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014g). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (pp. 29-45). Penguin Group USA.

10Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014i). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (pp.46-76). Penguin Group USA.

11Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014h). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p. 28). Penguin Group USA.

12Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014j). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (pp.77-101). Penguin Group USA.

13Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014k). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (pp.102-122). Penguin Group USA.

14Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014m). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p.123-144). Penguin Group USA.

15Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014l). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p. 101). Penguin Group USA.

16Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014n). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p.147-164). Penguin Group USA.

17Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014o). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (pp.165-182). Penguin Group USA.

18Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014q). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (pp.183-205). Penguin Group USA.

19Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014p). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p. 146). Penguin Group USA.

20Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014r). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (p. 258). Penguin Group USA.

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Recognizing Polite Indifference: Sign Language Interpreters & Power

Polite Indifference

When sign language interpreters avoid addressing issues to minimize conflict, we are exercising hearing privilege by adhering to majority cultural norms. Acting in true allyship requires courage, professional discipline, and transparency.


As sign language interpreters, we constantly make judgment calls on appropriate language choices and cultural behaviors in addition to determining how/where to act in allyship1.  In recent years, the concept of social justice2 and community accountability have become central to the discussion about how we practice the work of interpreting.

[Click to view post in ASL]

What is Polite Indifference?

Within the context of sign language interpreting, “polite indifference” refers to the American hearing cultural norm that results from the value of minimizing interpersonal conflict. When the risk of error is minimal, we drop the issue. We ignore the wrong. As people who are a part of the linguistic majority, we hold this privilege. As sign language interpreters, we use this privilege to decide if the situation is worthy of case discussion3 and/or involving the Deaf person in the conversation. These are decisions we, the interpreters, make daily. When a sign language interpreter decides an indiscretion is minor and not worthy of discussion, time or attention any kind, we are exercising our hearing privilege by practicing polite indifference.

Polite Indifference in Action

At one very public assignment, I was teamed with one hearing interpreter and one Certified Deaf Interpreter for a presentation which many Deaf community members attended. My colleagues were watching, listening, and undoubtedly, making note of my work. If I were in their seat, I would be doing the same. As I began to interpret, things were fine, but as time wore on, my team never took the microphone. As my mental process was breaking down, I could hear my own voice speaking English, but it wasn’t pretty. Sure, the concept was there – the main points were touched on (thank you Sandra Gish!4) but the extended time spent processing the source language and producing the target language without a break was clearly wearing on the interpretation.

By the time my team did take the helm, I was already spent and wondering why I had continued for so long, alone. The assignment continued in the same vein, with me taking the bulk of the ASL to English work. At the conclusion of the assignment, I fled to the restroom to gather myself. I needed to figure out how to approach my teams. While I have a good, strong relationship with this team, I was struck helpless. Worse still, we had agreed to meet with four less experienced interpreters so they could observe our debriefing session. I was not in the mental or physical state to engage in the kind of conflict I was feeling with spectators present.

As the debrief began, my hearing team confirmed my suspicions; with our colleagues in the room and the rich content of the presentation, she lost her mojo. I know that feeling well. She said she thought I was doing a fabulous job. My heart sank. Even if that were true, I wanted to scream at her for leaving me alone without switching at the agreed upon time. I wanted to ask her to prepare by knowing the terminology prior to coming to the job. I wanted to tell her I expected more from her. I wanted to tell her she let me down.

When it was my turn to debrief, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about how I was feeling or what my process was during work. With four pairs of new interpreter eyes focused on us, I wanted our process to look shiny and positive; I wanted to make the best of it. I was embarrassed to have them see us fail at working together. The assignment was rife with rich content and process dynamics. It felt petty and personal to discuss my concerns about being left to do all the work.  Plus, I was so tired; I couldn’t accurately judge the caliber of my own work. Instead of speaking up, I decided it was easier to be politely indifferent to what happened. To let it go.

After the debrief, I was left with several questions: Did this session meet the expectations of the new interpreters? Would the interpretation meet the expectations of the presenter? Will this team of interpreters be able to work together again? What have I done??!

In my community of practice, we share concepts of accountability including: calling out oppressive behaviors, recognizing micro-aggressions and audism. We discuss these concepts in the hopes of unpacking and addressing the privileges we have brought to interpreting. But in deciding to be quiet that day, I erased it all with my “polite indifference”.

Using Our Voices for Good

As I work with new sign language interpreters, our debrief allows me to see the impact of staying silent, even if there are perceived advantages. Some mistakes I have made go untouched, undiscovered, but having mentees requires me to look at the mistakes and deconstruct what is happening in my work. The difference between staying silent and this work of deconstruction is staggering. I practice case conferencing which elicits community involvement and takes into consideration the perspectives of Deaf people, my team, and the hearing constituents. I ask new practitioners who are still deeply entrenched in academic concepts to consider the impact of the work on all stakeholders.

Privilege is a fact which is central to our business. As hearing interpreters, our work is predicated on our ability to hear. Because of that privilege, because we are in the majority linguistic culture of the U.S., because we practice interpreting to provide access to information, we must always be mindful of the power privilege carries in our work and use our voices for good. This means having difficult conversations even when we feel that twinge of conflict and desire to be polite. We don’t always have to agree on each facet of the conversation. Acknowledging the temptation to respond with polite indifference will ultimately lead us to better outcomes and better relationships with Deaf people and team members.

Now what? Steps Forward

Addressing polite indifference and unpacking our privilege allows us to be more transparent. We must acknowledge that we have privileges and use them in a socially conscious way. If we do not share our thoughts, feelings, patterns and discomforts, we remain complicit in oppression and polite indifference can easily become a habit in our work. Unpacking is not comfortable. We have to remember that this action comes from a compassionate and ethical practice which is grounded in social justice values. A large majority of sign language interpreters are second language learners of ASL.Sharing our thoughts and feelings about our work is hard. Hearing the feedback of others is not easy.

In the situation described above, my decision to withhold information was an exercise of my privilege. What drove me not to share information was polite indifference. Much later, when I clearly understood my obligations, I talked to my hearing team. We hashed it out. I talked to my colleagues. They assured me the message of the presenter was given.  I hope to speak to the observing interpreters  individually and talk about the missed opportunity for discussion, and how recognition of polite indifference is a critical component in our work. Someday I will have the chance to talk to the presenter and organizer.  The ultimate lesson for me is that polite indifference is the opposite of using my voice for good.  

Questions to Consider:

  1. Recognizing privilege is critical when working with marginalized populations. How can sign language interpreters support each other in recognizing when hearing privilege is guiding decision-making in an interpreting situation?Do you feel prepared to have these difficult conversations with your team? if not, why not?
  2. How can sign language interpreters address issues of power and privilege proactively in team situations in order to protect the integrity of the work?
  3. Think about an instance when you chose polite indifference instead of confronting an issue. If you could go back in time and relive that situation, what would you do differently? Why?

Related Posts:

Missing Narratives in Interpreting and Interpreter Education by Erica West Oyedele

Self-Awareness: How Sign Language Interpreters Acknowledge Privilege and Oppression by Stacey Storme

Power Dynamics: Are Sign Language Interpreters Getting it Right? by Darlene Zangara


1 Allyship. (2011, December 10). Retrieved October 26, 2015, from

2 Coyne, D. (2014, May 20). Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters? Retrieved October 26, 2015, from

3 Keller, K. (2012, February 28). Case Discussion: Sign Language Interpreters Contain Their Inner. Retrieved October 26, 2015, from

Tag: Sandra Gish. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2015, from