Monday, May 25, 2015

failure to communicate

Years ago, I had this neighbor who was deaf. One night, I saw him confronted by a cop, as he walked across the street from my building.  The cop kept telling him to go home, that he shouldn't be out on the streets so late, alone.  Apparently assuming that his inability to speak was indicative of cognitive impairment.

This man, whose name I never knew, seemed to be very frustrated.  Trying to explain that he was just on his way to the corner store, but the cop wasn't listening.  He couldn't get past the strained speech, and what it meant to him.  Probably not the sharpest pig on the force, but still, surely if someone could explain it to him, and he would stop for even a moment to think about it, he'd be able to comprehend that being deaf was not the same as being retarded.

Even then, I suspect, that getting lost in the moment, he'd forget, and revert to treating a deaf man like a lost child, because that's what his instincts were telling him.  He hears that inability to speak clearly, and reacts to it, before logic and reason have much of a chance to even enter into it.  The ways in which we communicate and understand each other can be so intuitive like that.

It's interesting the way we react to people, on a very visceral level.  All the cues we take in, as we try to assess the sort of person we're dealing with.  It's an important function of social navigation, in many ways, in all sorts of interactions.  It can be a serious problem, when there is a barrier to that sort of assessment, when a person can't communicate, or when their ability to do so is distorted in some way.  We can end up being like that cop, treating a grown man like a hapless retard, because we're so used to depending on information and cues that aren't being adequately provided.

Another time, I remember walking down North Street, and seeing that same deaf man, hanging out with a few other deaf people.  Laughing and joking in sign language, they seemed to be able to communicate with each other just fine.  Suddenly, he was just a normal guy, rather than someone caught in the catch-22 of trying to explain that he was normal.

I've just been invited to a Memorial Day get together, and guess I should give it a chance, but I'm not sure which will be worse.  Sitting alone feeling awkward, or failing to communicate with someone who notices me sitting alone feeling awkward.  

Wait, definitely the latter.  It gets to the point where I just want to be left alone.. yet, I'll go.  Never know when someone there might turn out to speak sign language.

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