Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me?

March 23, 2016

Sharon Neumann Solow presented Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me? at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. Her presentation examines healthy and less helpful uses of ego in the work of sign language interpreters and why genuine confidence is a comfort to be around.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is the article that served as the basis for Sharon’s StreetLeverage – Live 2015 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Sharon’s original presentation directly.]

Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me?

While interpreting for a wedding with our legendary colleague, Lou Fant, I learned a huge lesson. We exited the church after the ceremony and Lou gently guided me away from the doors, advising me to stay away for a bit to allow all the attention to go to the couple and their party. He reminded me that everyone always rushes to let us know we did a good job. We can’t help but draw some attention while working but sometimes we can choose to wait in the wings for them to get the entire spotlight until we’re needed again. We can work at ways to deflect the attention from ourselves, so that it is focused on the people who are central in the experience.

Walking a Fine Line

When I think of this story, it makes me think of all the times I’ve seen speakers with an expectant smile as people are rushing toward them. It’s a look that indicates the expectation of a compliment or at least of attention coming their way. Too often, when they work with sign language interpreters, their faces drop as the crowd gathers around the interpreters to congratulate them on a job well done, or to commiserate over challenges faced while interpreting.  I’ve overheard people even criticizing the speaker – spoke too quickly, jumped all over the place, and so on. I worry that the speaker might overhear such comments, further deepening this concern that Lou helped me understand when I was a young interpreter.

Sign language interpreters walk a fine line between needing to be comfortable in the spotlight and being cautious and self-effacing. We are often in the front of the room, and our work is fascinating to many, so it is natural that attention will be drawn to us. It’s sometimes hard for the participants to share or lose that attention. Most speakers, teachers, preachers and so on are accustomed to a great deal of attention. For some it’s not easy sharing that attention. The interpreter can soften that difficulty with gracious and conscious effort. I see sign language interpreters handing off many questions about their work and particularly about ASL or individual signs to the Deaf participants so that Deaf people are afforded respect and attention. A lovely thing I’ve witnessed is the sharing of a compliment, such as the interpreter suggesting that the work was better because the presenter was so clear and organized.

Gracious handling can take many forms. It might be as simple as stepping away and remaining out of obvious sight, but ready to work; or the interpreters might make conscious efforts to place the attention back on the Deaf and hearing clients.

Focus on the Work

Our focus is best kept on the work as we negotiate this challenging tightrope of being comfortable with attention and yet being as invisible as possible. Even when the situation is not about stealing or sharing attention, our position as that extra person puts us in a position that requires incredible discretion. Most people would prefer to keep their business to themselves. So many little things are shared with interpreters. Imagine having a stranger or other outsider present while getting a cancer diagnosis, being in therapy sessions, being disciplined by a Vice Principal, and a million other scenarios. Our capacity to put our own egos aside and focus on the needs of the participants will make us the best we can be.

Feeds and Feedback

One way in which we can focus on the situation rather than our egos is to be open to feed and feedback. How many times have you heard sign language interpreters thank their partners for a feed? That does not help the interpretation to be understood, and it may be extremely confusing to the people relying on the interpretation. There’s no need to take care of the interpreters’ egos; just take the feed and keep interpreting. Thank your partner later.

Sometimes the problem is defensiveness. When getting or giving feedback we are sometimes posturing or defensive or both. If you are feeling defensive, my suggestion is to simply note the feedback you get on a piece of paper or your phone and visit it later with as little comment as possible. We can practice saying things like, “Thank you. I’m so frazzled I’ll have to think about this when my mind is back in my head.” or “Thank you for sharing this. I need to think about it more.” If we practice gracious ways to receive feedback, the likelihood is that we will receive more, which can help us improve by seeing things from other people’s perspectives.

It’s Not Always About Us

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that it’s not all about us. There are times when sign language interpreters simply take up too much bandwidth. A friend was complaining that the interpreter he hired for his child’s special performance bugged him for a music stand the entire time he was greeting guests. He asked her to wait until a more appropriate time, but the interpreter made him drop his hosting duties and get her the music stand then and there. Who doesn’t feel for that interpreter? We know that certain things are essential to our work, but it is also essential that the people involved are comfortable and have a positive experience on many levels.

Once I was on my way to a very important appointment to sit as a participant in front of a professional panel. Traffic and parking had been a nightmare and I was in a rush to get to the assigned room. I hopped on the elevator and an interpreter slid in as the doors were closing. It turned out she was an interpreter for this panel situation. When the elevator stopped, she pushed in front of me to arrive first. Somehow that deeply offended me. It slowed me down, and I was in a hurry, too, and it felt like it was all about her. This was a situation in which I was nervous and in actuality, it was much more all about me than the interpreter.

A Different Perspective

Another strange thing has happened to me that may be unique to the experience of having interpreters when I am, myself, an interpreter. Sometimes the interpreter steps in and makes a comment or a joke, or plays with me as the speaker. It’s as if the rules are not in effect because we are colleagues. When this happens, I sense how a speaker must feel having people so fascinated with the interpreter. It’s a strange sensation. I feel foolish for even noticing that the attention is not all on me. I feel embarrassed that I might care and I feel uncomfortable with the possible poor modeling that is occurring (it’s often the case that I’m lecturing to new as well as seasoned interpreters). I feel a bit offended at the intrusion; once in a while, it has actually taken me way off track and affected my teaching. It’s good for me to have a window into how our clients might feel, so the lesson has been worth it.

Another experience that puts me in the shoes of our clients is that I do a great deal of foreign travel. I have had interpreters assigned to interpret for interviews, lectures and discussions. Very few of those interpreters are memorable other than being charming outside of the work, like at lunch or in the coordination discussions. Once I went to lunch with members of the media in France. They had asked to talk to me about our television show, “Say It With Sign.” All through lunch, the interpreter chatted with the reporters. I was peripheral to the event, yet it was supposed to be about me. These experiences are remarkable in a very negative way.

Self-Awareness is the Key

In the end, we have to think about where we get our jollies. If attention is something you enjoy, make sure you are savoring the proper attention you get while interpreting, not drawing undue attention to yourself. Find other ways to get healthy attention, such as joining Toastmasters, lecturing, performing or just being sure you have enough social outlets in which you can attract as much attention as you enjoy.

* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox? SignUp!

Stay Current

Want to be among the first to know when we publish new content?

Are you an interpreter?

We respect your privacy.
We will never share your info.


Leave a Reply

27 Comments on "Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me?"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Sarah Schiffeler
Hello Sharon, This is a wonderful article! Thank you for bringing to the table a host of critical soft skills that are not explicitly taught since the focus in training interpreters is more heavily weighted on the acquisition of technical skills. But soft skills must be discussed and even role modeled. When interpreters somehow get the message that we are the most important person in the room, as if nothing could happen without us, then our behavior can include ego-inflated decisions and a lack of sensitivity to the actual lives of people that surround us in any given setting. But… Read more »

I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this post!! Perfectly stated, beautifully said. You are the bomb!

Audrey Rosenberg

Sharon! Beautifully said and very insightful! Huge hugs!!!


Thank you Sharon for a fascinating article. Very true- humility can go such a long way. One must ask the question WHY are some interpreters deliberately drawing attention to themselves? The answer might tell us more about them. Reflective practice certainly would (and does) assist in ones comprehension of their actions and behaviours.
Something to mull over!


Thank you for your honesty; admitting how it feels to have your moment in the sun stolen from you. A very good reminder for me.

Lori Whynot

Thanks, Sharon, for writing about a very important issue in our field that doesn’t often get discussed in our ethical dialogues. Well said-This is so timely.

Soetkin Bral
Dear Sharon, I saw you at Efsli school in Antwerp last year and I really love the way you look at our job. This article is wonderful and is an important reminder. It makes me think about the best compliment I ever had about my interpreting. A hearing colleague who works in deaf environment and can sign, asked me once: ‘did you interpret that meeting or not? When you are the interpreter, I really can’t remember afterwards if there was an interpreter present or not.’ I was so happy to hear that I succeed to stay out of the picture… Read more »
Terry A. Druehl

I am reminded that a very wise woman (VA. Hughes ), once told me that the greatest compliment I can receive is when the consumers forget I am there.


Va is my mentor, role model and hero!
Thanks for your comment.

Steph Walther
Terry Druehl brought me here. As another student of VA, and Terry’s classmate, I remember that this was a very difficult task. In a situation decades ago, the speaker insisted on addressing me instead of the client, which was so uncomfortable. I was steadfast in interpreting everything so the client could respond, but he didn’t. I finally broke and asked the speaker to please direct comments to the client directly (signing to the client as I did so.) It didn’t work, and I refused to break again. But I was in a sweat the whole time, dreading if VA would… Read more »
Hi Sharon, I am not sure if I have ever had the pleasure of meeting you, but you look familiar and your name sounds familiar. Anyway, I just want to truly thank you for such a very timely article (more than you know). I have recently been doing some research/studying on humility and being humble, etc. This quality is so needed for us as interpreters and your story about you and Lou Fant has helped me tremendously! One of my sons works on television and I often tell people that I feel the reason he meets so many celebrities (Jay… Read more »

Thank you for your kind comments.
You make an excellent point. Humility actually can lead to others being more comfortable in your presence and therefore allowing you more opportunities
Lou was the epitome of humility.
I look forward to seeing the results of your research on humility.


[…] Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me? […]

Stephanie C.
I love it! This article provides a great mind set to enter any field not restrictively as an interpreter but any field when interacting with other people. I truly believe the importance of managing egos and ways it may affect others when not regulating oneself. I enjoy the feeling of a morality check and new sense of realizing respect boundaries as I read the different scenarios Mrs. Solow’s article. Lastly, I enjoyed coming across another technique for those that crave attention recommending then to undue their attention by social outlets as a healthy way to release that urge. I occasionally… Read more »

Thanks for your comments, Stephanie.
I agree, this is important in many, probably all walks of life.
Your comment about improving our inner life as well as our professional and interpersonal self made good sense as well.

Candas Ifama


Thanks for this provocative presentation. There is a fine line we are called to walk in our work and I Am reminded of more instances than I care to admit where I may have erred on the side of ego. I appreciate you calling us to another level of accountability and reminding us of the many ways we consciously and unconsciously use and abuse the power we have as interpreters. THANK YOU!!

Hi there, While I am a huge fan of SNS, I do have to take issue with the idea that the focus is not on us… because it is. Interpreting is not a common experience for many, so to deny them their humanity and curiosity because we fear looking arrogant in the eyes of our colleagues seems to me… well, selfish and more self-serving. If I make it awkward by insisting that I can’t answer anything because I’m the interpreter, whom does that serve? My ego? RID? Or if I act in a humane manner by answering one or two… Read more »
Hi there, While I am a huge fan of SNS, I do have to take issue with the idea that the focus is not on us… because it is. Interpreting is not a common experience for many, so to deny them their humanity and curiosity because we fear looking arrogant in the eyes of our colleagues seems to me… well, selfish and more self-serving. If I make it awkward by insisting that I can’t answer anything because I’m the interpreter, whom does that serve? My ego? RID? Or if I act in a humane manner by answering one or two… Read more »

Forward-looking organizations committed to retelling the story of the interpreter.



(New York)