Liam wearing headphones in front of a radio mic

Sign language isn’t just for swear words – End the Awkward

Liam is a student, writer, blogger and has his own radio show. He also happens to be deaf. For End the Awkward, Liam writes about awkward moments, misconceptions and how to communicate with a deaf person without avoiding them or making them feel uncomfortable.

I’m not a comedian, yet there seems to be something I do which makes people laugh on a night out. Except I’m not laughing and everything’s suddenly turned a little bit awkward. It’s a tumbleweed moment, and I don’t know what’s so funny.

I’ve misheard something. All it takes is for me to confuse two similar sounding words and everyone around me either laughs or feels uncomfortable. It’s particularly easy for this to happen in a pub or restaurant, where background noise is a constant problem. As soon as I realise that I’ve misheard and ask for clarification, the conversation has moved on and I’m told it ‘doesn’t matter’. It’s frustrating, but I try to shrug it off.

For the rest of the night, people avoid conversations with me in case there’s another mishap, so I’m left trying to understand people talking around me. It’s particularly hard in a bar when there’s a lot of noise and a group of men in the corner getting way too invested in a game of football.

Communication is key to ending the awkward

Most hearing people don’t know how to communicate with deaf people, and that’s where the awkwardness lies. Poor deaf awareness has led to misunderstandings and a sense of mystery surrounding the deaf community.

Something I still find uncomfortable is asking someone to repeat themselves. Sure, as someone who struggles to hear now and then, you’d be right to think that I’m allowed to say ‘pardon’ every once in a while. Yet, as I ask them to say what they’ve said again, I fear that they’ll do something which isn’t helpful – be it shouting, exaggerating lip movements or getting frustrated.

In the end, I’ve resorted to asking someone to repeat themselves around two or three times. After that, I just nod, smile and agree. It saves the hassle, but it becomes a problem when you then find out that they were complaining about something you shouldn’t have agreed with. Oops.

Liam wearing radio headset, smiling at the camera

Sign language has so much to offer people

In 2014, I was on the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Youth Advisory Board. At the first meeting, I met a few young people who use British Sign Language. However, as I didn’t know any BSL at the time, I was forced to write on scraps on paper, or use mobile phones to talk to them.

It worked, but not knowing basic BSL made me feel a little embarrassed. So, in-between the next three meetings, I tried to learn sign language wherever and whenever I can. The end result was that I could finally communicate with my friends on the youth board in BSL. Now, I’m more involved in the deaf community and a few misconceptions I had have since been debunked.

As someone who is keen to teach others, I’ve had a lot of friends ask me to show them some BSL. The only problem is that they want to know swear words and not useful phrases which will help break down the communication barrier.

How to End the Awkward

I’m not saying that every hearing person has to take BSL lessons. Next time you meet a deaf person, just say hello and ask how they like to communicate. If they happen to know BSL, ask if they can teach you a few words or phrases. If not, there is one workaround which I am encouraging my friends and other people to do.

Written English is the best way for deaf and hearing people to communicate together. If a hearing person cannot understand BSL, and a deaf person is struggling to understand what they’re saying, then taking out a phone and going to the notepad app can really help. It may feel awkward for the hearing person having to type out their response instead of saying it, but the alternative is far more awkward and confusing.

Eventually, hearing people will get to understand the lives of deaf people, ending the misconceptions, ending the mockery and ending the awkward.

You can read the rest of our End the Awkward blogs, or get involved in the campaign by submitting your awkward story.