Deaf People Don't Want to Chat with Strangers

by Tina Blue
December 23, 2000

      I know it has happened to you if you are significantly hearing-impaired.

          You're out in the wide world--in line at the grocery store, walking along the sidewalk downtown, or maybe at the laundromat. Anywhere that you are likely to be around strangers. Someone will say something to you. Not wanting to go into a big ol' explanation of the fact that you are hard of hearing, you make the effort: "Excuse me," you say, cupping your ear and staring at the person's lips. With some effort, maybe even a repetition or two, you get the gist of the comment and respond appropriately.

          Then you turn around and go back to minding your own business.

          But that never ends it, does it? The person will inevitably have something more to say, some sort of inconsequential small talk. This time you clear things up a bit: "I'm sorry--I'm deaf and I don't have my hearing aids in. I can't understand what you're saying, at least not without a huge amount of effort."

          You'd think that would shut them up, but it never does. Instead, it seems to make them want to chatter at you even more. It's not as though there's anything of significance that needs to be said--the person is a complete stranger, after all. But these folks never will leave you alone. Maybe they're like that with every stranger in their vicinity--but somehow I always get the feeling that it's people like us, the ones that can't understand what they are saying, that really attract their attention.

          Almost every time I go to the laundromat, someone will try to make small talk with me while I'm loading clothes into the washer, or while I'm folding them into my basket. I'm not shy, mind you. I come right out and say to them, "I'm sorry, but it is impossible for me to carry on a conversation with you unless I stop my work and cup my ears and face you. I really have to get this laundry done, so I don't have time to keep stopping like this."

          But that never fazes them. I have actually had people tap me to get my attention again after that little speech--and it's always to say something totally inane. Mind you, I am not likely to be mistaken for a milquetoast or a doormat. Actually, I have a pretty effective "back off and leave me alone" face that I will put on for such occasions. But it never seems to make any difference. It's hard, I think, for some people to take a deaf person seriously.

          I have heard pregnant women complain that everyone they encounter seems to consider their pregnancy to be "public property," justifying any approach or familiarity. Complete strangers will ask them personal questions, make unsolicited remarks about pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing, and even--honestly!--pat or rub their protruding abdomens!

          I wonder if it isn't something like that with deaf people. When people encounter a more visible handicap--say, someone in a wheelchair or with a guide dog--they tend to hold back, or even to glance away. But deafness isn't the sort of handicap that comes with obvious physical signs, so it doesn't elicit the sort of discomfort that more visible handicaps seem to cause in other people. Maybe our handicap is of the sort that makes people feel comfortably curious, even possessive.

          I'm guessing that they'd like to stare at the blind, the paralyzed, the amputees, the very apparently handicapped, and probably they'd like to ask probing questions, too. But they feel that such untoward intrusiveness would make them seem boorish and insensitive. For some reason, though, no one minds seeming boorish and insensitive toward a deaf person.

          Conversation is hard work for a deaf person. We seldom have any wish to put all that effort into making mindless small talk with total strangers encountered by chance in public places.

    Or maybe it's just me.
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