Culture clash and communicative labour

Culture clash. I’m sure we’ve all experienced it. The “brash” American tourist, “humourless” German client, “inscrutable” Japanese delegation (to name a few obvious clichés). But how many of us have experienced culture clash with people who are from the same country, but nonetheless behave in a way that is somehow “foreign”?

We all have many layers of identity. For example, I am male, British, white, heterosexual, vegan. I’m also Deafblind, that is: profoundly (totally) Deaf and partially sighted.

Some identities have a bigger impact on your life than others. Being Deaf defines who I am more than all the other layers put together. Perhaps because it marks me out as a member of a minority.

The Deaf community in Britain, which numbers an estimated 100–150,000 members, has developed its own unique language and culture (that’s the capital D in Deaf) and methods of communicating and sharing information. For decades, Deaf people did not have access to the same level of information as their hearing friends and family (no radio, no subtitles on TV or at the cinema, no Internet, no mobile phones, no email when I was growing up!)

Many Deaf people are the only person in their family or workplace who uses BSL. So when we get together, we can finally relax with others like us. We are very open about sharing information and telling each other honestly what we think. We experience the world through our eyes. We are visual. We ”say what we see”!

Unfortunately, this does not always sit comfortably within the majority hearing culture, especially at work. British people are famously polite and indirect, even vague about their intentions. Remember the grid with “What British People Say Vs What They Really Mean?” It’s a minefield!

British (hearing) people hint, suggest, imply, infer, beat around the bush and assume the other person is skilled enough to guess their meaning. It’s like a complex dance. This can be really hard for a Deaf person to untangle! Especially when communicating via a third person — a sign language interpreter brought in from outside who may not understand all of the subtext themselves.

There have been so many occasions when I have realised that my colleagues were surprised or dismayed at me not behaving like a hearing person, even when they know very well that I am Deafblind. One person submitted a formal complaint because I wore a baseball cap in the office. Without it, I could barely see my screen through the glare of the electric lighting. The person never thought to ask. She was very embarrassed when she found out. Other colleagues thought I’d had one too many because I have a slightly wobbly gait when I walk. Sorry guys — I’m not drunk, I’m Deaf! Just ask if you’re curious.

You may have heard of the concept of “emotional labour” — work that women are often expected to do in the home, such as thinking and planning housework, childcare, general life admin for their family. It occurred to me that Deaf people have a similar invisible burden: we have to manage a great deal of “communicative labour” alongside our actual work. We are, as I said, often “the only Deafie in the village” (or the office). We are in a misunderstood minority. For many colleagues, we may be the first and only Deaf person they will ever meet.

There is a popular misconception about Deaf people’s miraculous ability to lipread, even at great distances, round corners or in the dark. I’ll let you into a secret: I can’t lipread. At all. My eyesight is too bad anyway. But even Deaf people with 20:20 vision can’t lipread more than about 1/3 of what is spoken (and that’s without taking mumblers, moustaches and poor lighting into account). It involves a lot of guesswork and is absolutely exhausting. Just try it sometime.

Nor is sign language simply English spelled on the fingers. It is a completely different, rich, living language with its own vocabulary, grammar, slang and regional and international variation (American Sign Language and British Sign Language developed separately so the signs are for the most part mutually unintelligible).

In order to succeed in this hearing world, I have had to become bilingual. I can’t hear or speak but I have learned to read and write English well enough that most people do not realise that I am working in my second language every day. It is beyond tiring.

Sometimes an interpreter helps me to polish my English and adds in those essential polite phrases which soften what might sound a bit rude, offhand or even disrespectful to someone unfamiliar with BSL or Deaf culture. For example, I might quickly message someone on Slack: “Is that project finished?” whereas a hearing boss might write “I was wondering how you were getting on with that project? Anything I can help with?”.

Both messages have exactly the same intention: a nudge to enquire about progress. But the way they come across and are received can be quite different. I am constantly trying to adapt to avoid accidentally rubbing colleagues up the wrong way by not writing in a “hearing” style. Tone is everything. It does not come naturally to me but I have been working on it.

So why am I telling you this? It’s Deaf Awareness Week, the moment each year when many organisations take the time to learn more about Deaf people and their language and culture, perhaps to learn a bit of BSL or to think about how to work better with Deaf colleagues and improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

My dream is for employers around the world to use this week as a springboard to encouraging all of their staff to value their Deaf colleagues and to support them as much as possible by sharing some of that communicative labour. Now that would really get a big thumbs up from me!

FT Product & Technology

A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology department.

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Ben Fletcher

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Ey up! #Yorkshireman. #Sheffield & #London. Principal Engineer @FinancialTimes. Stood #GE2017 in #Putney with @TheGreenParty. Formerly @IBM Master Inventor.

FT Product & Technology

A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology department.