Why Does Sign Language Look So...Angry?

Posted by: Staff Writer on July 10, 2012

An Open Letter to Businesses Curious About Deaf Culture: For every person who comments that “sign language is such a beautiful language,” there is another person who thinks sign language looks … well, angry. That’s because no matter how beautiful the language really is, it is apt to be punctuated with quizzical frowns, intense hand movements, raised eyebrows, and other mannerisms.

To the untrained eye, all of these can add up to an appearance of anger.  Sometimes, it is anger: When a deaf couple argues, their hands raise higher and higher like a conductor raising an octave.

The more intense the signs, likely they are to be (mis)interpreted as angry. For example, watch this “Deaf Ninja” YouTube video. Focus only on the actor’s facial expressions (not the meaning of his signs). Notice that he switches from poker-faced, to angry, to bewildered, to frightened. Overall, the mood may feel angry – like someone stuck in a struggle.

Some things to consider, when you wonder if your deaf patrons are angry about your business – or not:

  • Speed adds to the “angry” factor, but not all the time. Remember the last time you had a heated argument? Chances are that not only did you raise your voice volume, you spoke faster. Much faster! The anger spilled out like a flood, not pausing until you caught your breath. Some deaf people sign very fast, not out of anger but out of their unique signing style.

  • The opposite of beauty is not anger. The beauty of sign has a lot to do with expressiveness. If you watch Italians conversing with their signature hand moments (five fingertips squished together, jerking up and down), it looks like a heated confrontation. But Italians are not all angry, just like Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HH) individuals are not all angry.

  • Marlee Matlin was oh-so-angry in her breakout film. Since her Children of a Lesser God role in 1986, Matlin became the mainstream’s token deaf celebrity. Playing a troubled, headstrong deaf woman, Matlin’s many scenes involved arguing with her lover. Now that’s angry! Not all Deaf/HH people are like her most famous character, but stereotypes stick, 26 years later.

  • Location, location, location. Any Video Relay Service (VRS) interpreter will tell you that Deaf/HH individuals sign differently in different parts of the country. The West Coast is known for its mellow, easygoing nature … including their signs. Deaf/HH individuals on the east coast (like students from Gallaudet University, and Rochester Institute of Technology) sport a distinctive, fast-paced, and thunderous form of sign language. Some non-local Deaf/HH individuals find it a challenge to keep up!

“Deaf people are so angry and militant!” is a common misconception attributed to those who are of the “Capital D” (associated with Deaf Culture) category. The word militant is associated with aggressiveness, thus anger – but in reality it must not be confused for anything except what it really is: Pride.

Lastly, sometimes it is an angry culture. Deafhood has come a long way since the Stone Ages of being unable to vote, work, buy property, and so forth. But like most minority groups, we still have a ways to go. That’s why some conversations reflect candidly on our shared frustrations: Communication barriers, a family that doesn’t sign, frustrations requesting equal access such as an interpreter to a doctors appointment, and more.

And of course, you can bet we’re angry when our iPhone crashes.

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Comment Policy

We’re aware that issues facing the Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and Hard of Hearing Community can become quite passionate and divided. What can we say, we’re a group of passionate people! While we fully support a community full of passion, we also require that comments are respectful. We think negative attitudes and disrespect are a waste of everyone’s time and energy. This doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with people, you just need to do it respectfully. We reserve the right to delete or edit any comments we feel are judgmental, rude, or of attacking nature.

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