Posted by: learnsignlanguage | April 18, 2011

Etiquette when communicating with Deaf People

For communication to flow naturally and smoothly, be aware that a signer needs space for making his own signs and he needs to be able to see other signers from the waist upwards to get the full visual message. That’s why signers tend to sit or stand further apart than speakers of spoken languages do. A benefit of this of course is that signed communications can carry on at a distance or other situations that are impossible for speech!

Communication can be affected by ‘visual noise’ such as dim lights, glare, dazzle, bold wall patterns and anything in the physical background that may be distracting. This is the same as trying to have a spoken conversation as a loud motorbike roars past, or if you are in a group of people and everyone is talking at the same time.

There are rules and etiquette for smooth communication and conversation that need to be followed with sign language. So let’s begin with how you can get the attention of a Deaf person to begin communicating with them.

Getting attention

To start communicating with a Deaf person, it is necessary to get their attention. This can be done in various ways…If the Deaf person is quite close to you and is looking away, you can gently tap him on his shoulder or arm (tapping anywhere else is considered rude). If he is further away you can wave your hand. Another possibility is to make a vibration that will reach that person – for example, banging your fist on a table. The first two options (tapping the person on the arm or shoulder or waving your hand or an object to get his visual attention) are quite common when dealing with individuals.

In a group, it is slightly different. You could tap a bystander and ask them to relay your tap to the person whose attention you want to get. It could result in a whole chain of people tapping each other in order to get the attention of the desired person.

With larger groups you could flick the lights on and off. This is a useful way to make announcements to a whole group.

Some ways of getting attention are considered impolite. For example, you may see children trying to get the attention of their Deaf parents by trying to turn their heads or tugging at their chin. This form of attracting attention is unacceptable – unless the Deaf people concerned are in the middle of an argument and NEED the attention!

Flicking the lights on and off purely to get the attention of only one person is also considered rude. Only use this method if you want the attention of a group of people. Once the person has been contacted by a tap or wave and it is evident that communication is desired then the person receiving the signed message is expected to keep eye contact until a natural break occurs. It is normal for the signer and the recipient to be engaged in signed conversation and at least for one of them to be nodding (the equivalent in the spoken language of saying, “Okay, I understand”)

Both signed language and spoken language still follow the same rules of etiquette and turn taking but obviously in a slightly different way. For example in signed languages it is customary to ‘catch’ the signers attention when you want to interrupt, make a contribution or take your turn by just raising your hands ready to sign. If the other person is happy for you to take your turn then his hands will drop down.

The receiver can interrupt the sender by looking away or by waving for attention. He may also catch the senders eye by shaking his head or using a sign to indicate disagreement.

The sender shows that he has finished by dropping his hands from the signing space and looking at the receiver.

For more information about learning sign language please take a look at or to claim your free British Sign Language DVD and tip booklet ‘Sign Language for Beginners’ (for UK readers) go to

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