by Miller Williams
No matter how she tilts her head to hear
she sees the irritation in their eyes.
She knows how they can read a small rejection,
a little judgment, in every What did you say?
So now she doesn’t say What? or Come again?
She lets the syllables settle, hoping they form
some sort of shape that she might recognize.
When they don’t, she smiles with everyone else,
and then whoever was talking turns to her
and says, “Break wooden coffee, don’t you know?”
She pulls all she can focus into the face
to know if she ought to nod or shake her head.
In that long space her brain talks to itself.
The person may turn away as an act of mercy,
leaving her there in a room full of understanding
with nothing to cover her, neither sound nor silence .
I have noticed that one of the by-products of wearing masks during the pandemic is how hard it is to understand other people speaking and other people difficulty in understanding me. I hear, “What did you say?” all the time, either coming out of my mouth or someone else’s. I don’t think masks garble the words, it’s hearing is based in part on our reading lips and expression and body language to a greater extent then I understood before. Communication is way more than auditory. Masks mask emotions, they prevent us from seeing irony and the wry smile, they make it harder to follow interactions on every level. In short they are a barrier to efficient and effective communication. Research on infants suggests one of the ways babies learn about human interaction is by intensely studying faces. We learn at a young age how communication is shared non-verbally through the most minute of expressions on our faces. So is it any wonder we are all feeling a little lost and bewildered among a faceless crowd of strangers these days in masks?
Maybe we are all experiencing a touch of prosopagnosia, the rare medical condition in which people are unable to distinguish between different people’s faces, where everyone looks the same. Is that why the world feels a little more harsh these days? Our individuality is being absorbed by a collective mass disinterest in the world around us as we each try and manage our way through this confusing mix of trying to self isolate and remain human.
Maybe its time we all learned a bit of sign language? What if we collectively entered the world of the deaf and experience their reality for a little while? It would be a safer alternative to speaking, reducing a bit of talking of simple expressions would likely reduce droplets in the air and possibly risk of transmission when in close proximity to strangers. I am not making light of the deaf, but suggesting that empathy is the thing that is in shortest supply right now and maybe if we experienced another’s permanent reality temporarily it would recenter us as a society that we have a shared purpose in looking out for one another. Would it be so awful if we all learned ASL for hello, goodbye, please, thank you, could you help me and a few other key words and phrases? It would force us to slow down, look up at each other, pay attention and acknowledge each other safely. And by doing so maybe retrace our steps back to a world where we were not fearful of the stranger next to us in line.
Raymond Luczak is a deaf writer, poet, playwright, renaissance man who lives in Minneapolis. The video below is him, reciting his brilliant poem in a beautiful expression of how to communicate beyond speech.
Instructions to Hearing Persons Desiring a Deaf Man
by Raymond Luczak
His eyebrows cast shadows everywhere.
You are a difficult language to speak.
His long beard is thick with distrust.
You are another curiosity seeker.
His hands are not cheap trinkets.
Entire lives have been wasted on you.
His face is an inscrutable promise.
You are nothing but paper and ink.
His body is more than a secret language.
Tourists are rarely fluent in it.
His eyes will flicker with a bright fire
when you purge your passport of sound.
Let your hands be your new passport,
for he will then stamp it with approval.
A deaf man is always a foreign country.
He remains forever a language to learn.