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The Deaf Nod – or – I don’t understand a thing you are saying, but I’m pretending I do

All hearing people who have worked with the deaf, and even other deaf people, have seen ‘the Deaf nod.’  In fact, everyone who has is nodding their head right now.  Hearing people do it to:  You are talking to mom, she is busy cooking dinner, but she nods her head and says “uh huh” every three seconds.  You know she isn’t really listening to you, but for some reason you keep talking to her.  But when hearing people do it, they are obviously distracted.  Deaf people smile, look you straight in the face while you are signing and nod while completely uncomprehending of anything you are saying.  It is an extraordinary talent, really–the sort of acting ability unparalleled in Hollywood. The only problem is… It definitely doesn’t work with a spouse.

My husbands hearing friends will tell me that they know he is piecing together bits of the conversation he can with lip reading, his CI and visual cues.  He calls it a Wheel of Fortune puzzle.  I understand the difficulties of communicating with people when you only understand bits and pieces of the conversation.  I do.  But if communication is the key to every relationship, nodding your head when you don’t know wtf your spouse is saying is probably not a good idea.  She could be telling you that she is really hot for you and could you come to bed – or she could be telling you not to throw away the stuff drying on the counter, it’s Marzipan not clay, or she could be telling you that you have no money in the account.  All things you might actually want to know, especially that first one.

This isn’t just a deaf/hearing thing, it happens between the deaf too. There are a lot of difficulties in ASL.  Everyone has their own ‘accent.’  Living in Texas, I know many Mexican Deaf who first learned MSL and then came here.  They have a bit of a Spanglish problem, with many MSL signs thrown into their ASL conversations.  And that’s not all, there are ‘local’ signs.  There are four different ways to sign “Sunday” and lots of local places have their own name signs.   Since my best Deaf friend taught me a lot of sign language, sometimes I get funny looks when using an MSL sign to my ASL only friends–or I get the Deaf nod.  It seems perfectly understandable this would happen, right?  But the deaf will do it to the deaf too when they don’t really understand them.

The hearing people interpret for will often tell me when trying to communicate something to the Deaf “will you make sure they REALLY understand?” because they know that sometimes the Deaf will say they understand (or do the Deaf nod) when they really don’t.  I don’t make any promises.  There’s nothing an interpreter can do to make sure they understand except ask: “Understand?”

Honestly, it’s just like anything else.  What might be REALLY important to you just isn’t as important to someone else–deaf or not and no amount of clarification, language enhancement and emphasis can make it become important to them when it isn’t.


About Noelle Campbell

This blog is about my life and how I see things. I write, I think, I dream, I do. I used to write a lot of fantasy until I realized I was living one. I was married to a deaf-blind Hobbit in a realm we created together. He passed away in 2014, but our life was interesting enough I think you might like it too.

One response to “The Deaf Nod – or – I don’t understand a thing you are saying, but I’m pretending I do

  1. There is also the social worker/therapist nod which is meant to let the client know you are attending (while really doodling on the paper). And the spousal unit nod which is mean to appease the babbling spousal unit.

    I used to do a lot of of half-attentive/half-inattentive head bobbing and uh-huhing. However, as my hearing fades I’m a lot more likely to be an intent listener and say, “I can’t hear/understand you. Again please.” Or, “When you walk away from me and talk, that means I will NOT understand you at all.”

    Sometimes in a signing situation I will miss a word/sign or two, but ASL is regional and even local so if I get the gist of the conversation that is often good enough. Personally, for technical things I prefer CART.

    And “Understand?” is insufficient, really – for anyone. Maybe I heard one thing and you said another. I like people to tell me in their own words what I just said. Sometimes a legal terp talks to the deaf person and then a deaf terp goes into detail – someone who is able to bridge both worlds – not always an easy thing to do.

    Deaf people agree to keep from being thought stupid. They sometimes agree themselves into hot water.

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