My pretend talk

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Having watched far too many videos I thought it would be fun to come up with one that I might give if I had to come up with one at a moment's notice. I won't allude to the subject of the talk in the title here but it becomes obvious pretty quickly.

And now, here is the pretend talk. Cue the TED logo, music and applause.


Most of our communication takes place either through using our mouths in person, or our fingers when writing or typing, and when two people speak the same language this is usually enough to communicate just about everything we need. But there's one area of communication that we don't seem to be interested in using, and I've always wondered why. Because without this ability to communicate we end up in some extremely awkward and unproductive situations.

I'll give you a quick example. It's morning, you're getting ready for work and your wife or whoever is asking you a question. She wants to know how many people came to your speech last night. The answer is 5000. And you'd love to tell her. The problem is that you look like this.

(Picture of guy with toothbrush in mouth, clearly unable to talk)

Yes, you're in the middle of a really good brush and you won't be done for another minute or two. If you've just started you should be able to take the brush out and just tell her, but if not, you have to make a decision. Awkwardly sign with your hand? Open hand with all digits spread apart for five, then put your finger and thumb together for a circle then jut out two more times for the other two zeros in the 5000. Now she's not sure though whether you meant 500 or 5000, and trying to sign again is just confusing her. "Do you mean five hundred or five thousand?" she asks. It would be great if you could just signal that you mean the latter, but you don't know how. You're not done brushing either so it's time to try a different method: take out the brush, tilt your head back a bit and try to say it as best you can. Five thousand!

(Picture of guy with mouth full of toothpaste leaning back and finally managing to blurt out "Wai Ouzend" without spilling anything)

And finally it worked, you have successfully communicated the word five thousand to your wife. That was easy though; it was just a number. If she wanted to know something like a person's name, address, or anything else there would be no way you could have imparted that information without writing it down, finishing brushing your teeth, or spitting the toothpaste out and simply telling her.

So I'll get straight to the point of this talk, and then expand on why. I think we should all know some sign language, I believe it should be taught in schools. We don't need to be fluent in it, but we should all know some. How much we should know is a subject for later.

So why should we bother taking the time to learn it? It would require a national or even multinational effort to create a populace capable of communicating even the most basic of concepts. But the thing is, we already try to use it, every day. And we fail miserably. I'm not talking about using one's hands for emphasis when communicating, even though here too you can see how little the hands add to the conversation:

I'm talking about when we need to communicate something but can't use our mouth, and don't have the time or tools to write. Let's look at some of the numerous examples of where this is the case. Here's a stretch of roadway.

Let's say you're in one of the cars there and you just mistakenly cut someone off. The driver of that car is has now pulled up next to you and is glaring and now is the time to let him know that you didn't mean to cut him off. What do you do? Wave and it might look like you're making fun, make another motion with one hand and he might think you're trying to flip him off. What people often do here is make a kind of throwing up their hands motion complete with an "I'm sorry, I'm a huge idiot" face with a half smiling, half cringing type of look, in order to make sure that he knows. Imagine if you could just make a quick sign saying "I'm sorry".

Or you're driving and next to you a person pulls up and it's someone you know. Roll down your window! he signals. By the way, to signal that you make a kind of circling motion even though few cars have a manual crank to open windows anymore. At least that sign is easy to understand. So you lower the window and it's kind of hard to hear.

Your friend: HEY! YOU...TO THE ...ER?

Uh oh, the light just turned green and you both have to go. You don't know his phone number either, and now you're driving next to each other at 80 kph and would like to signal something but aren't sure what to do. Eventually he ends up turning and that's the end of that. If you're lucky in a situation like this you can find a place to pull over and talk, but not always.

Way more awkward than this though is the following situation. You're going to work in the morning, you're standing at this intersection.

That girl across the street is your friend you don't know very well and you notice each other across the intersection, and it's too late to pretend you didn't. Now what do you do? To talk to her you would have to yell, meaning she still might not hear you but the people standing next to you will hear you loud and clear. Same for the people standing near her if she wants to say something to you. You could meet in the centre of the intersection after the light changes and then walk together a bit, but then again you don't know her very well. But you still know her well enough that just breezing by with a nod wouldn't be nice. If only there was some way you could exchange a few greetings during the minute or so you're waiting at the intersection.

See, the thing about relying only on voice is that it's only useful at short distances, and even then if you don't have a plane of glass between you and the person you want to talk to. I once saw two deaf people hanging out together at a Starbucks, signing away. One of them went to go outside to smoke. She sat out front, her friend stayed inside, and they continued talking with their hands. We can't do that. We spend a lot of time sitting behind glass, especially in our cars, and there is no way to communicate with each other without really raising our voices.

How do you tell someone in their car that they just pulled into the wrong parking spot? Get close and ask them to roll down the window, or yell it.

Ever felt annoyed at not being able to talk to someone at an office or embassy because they closed the glass counter and are making every effort to ignore you? Well, they'll still ignore you if you both know some sign language but at least you'll know you're getting your point across without having to yell, and they'll have to avoid eye contact altogether to pretend they don't know you're there.

How do you get a message across to a construction worker operating on noisy machinery, your wife or friend vacuuming the house, a person at a noisy bar or concert? Option 1: yell. Option 2: signal. The noisy bar is one area I find to be especially puzzling. Every day millions and millions of people go to noisy bars and try to meet people, and they often end up sounding like complete idiots when they want to impress someone they're meeting for the first time, and yet the idea to do something about this has never taken root. Even the most eloquent of speakers is reduced to the following in a noisy bar.

(video of noisy bar, transcript)


What I'm proposing here is not full fluency, but wouldn't it be nice to just be able to signal that you'll pay for a drink? "Here, I'll pay for this." Signal it with your hands. The conversation at these bars in a country semi-fluent in sign language would still be mostly speech, but peppered with hand signals that actually make sense, signals that add something to the conversation instead of just useless motions. Did that person say fifteen or fifty? Now you know because they habitually made a quick sign at the same time.

Instances where sign language would be a big help are nearly endless, but I'll just give a few more.

How about giving a speech where the volume for the mic is low and those in the back can only make out about half? Add some signing and they'll have a much easier time following along.

Communicating within the office: you'd like Employee A to quickly bring you a sheet of paper, the yellow one on the desk, but he's sitting a ways away. It's not important enough to phone, but the distance is still enough that yelling would be awkward. You could wave him over, then tell him to go back to his desk and get the paper, or if you could sign you could just say "bring the yellow paper". Nothing easier.

Got the waitresses attention and you'd like some water? She's coming over now but she was standing right next to the water when you got her attention in the first place. A "water please" sign straight away would have let her get it for you without having to make two trips.

Want to talk to the person in front of you in the super quiet library where everyone is studying? Even whispering can be heard here. Signing though, no problem.

Building burning down and firefighters need to communicate with someone at the windowsill to tell her what to do? They can use a bullhorn to communicate, but she isn't having as easy a time letting them know that someone else is inside the apartment and is trapped in their room and can't get out. If she could sign it they could understand her from just about any altitude.

And of course, want to talk to someone who is hard of hearing or completely deaf? No problem.

This last one would seem to be the most obvious benefit to knowing sign language, but I wanted to stress the fact that people who have perfectly fine hearing would benefit from it too. Because the way we use sign language right now is one of two ways: either 1) a haphazard, awkward, extremely inaccurate guesswork kind of sign language that varies from person to person, or 2) a very limited set of signals such as these used by bicycle riders to show where they intend to turn.

So that's the main point I'd like to impart here. Learning sign language may seem to be an exotic and unnecessary skill for most of us, but the fact is that we use it all the time, or at least we try to. And fail miserably. We wouldn't get anywhere if everyone had their own crude language or crude spoken language made up on the spot, and neither does it make sense for people to use their hands to try to communicate in the way they try to every day, when they don't even know how. We want to use our hands to communicate and we try all the time, but somehow we're of the opinion that only those that can't hear need this skill. So why not realize that we all try to use our hands to communicate all the time, and then actually learn how to do it properly?

Thank you for your time. (Applause, TED logo and music)

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