Deaf studies

Cultural relativism, intercultural communication and competency

Intercultural communication is an academic field of study and research to understand how people from different countries and cultures behave, communicate and perceive the world around them. Studies can be applied to real life situations in interpreting services, health care, educational settings, etc.

In your culture, everything in the world is yellow. In our culture, blue. When you want to learn about our Blue culture, you put the blue-tinted eyeglasses on your face. What do you see? My students guessed, "blue?" "Maybe a mix of blue and yellow?" Yes, something green-ish. You still have your yellow perception filtered through the blue lens.

"We know what we perceive; we don't know what we don't perceive. Since there is no way that we can know what we don't perceive, we assume that we perceive 'correctly' - even if we don't." -- Singer, 1987 pp 19.20.

Every culture may share some similarities and some differences with another culture. Some people are multicultural or intersectional. For example, Deaf American white people and Deaf Native Americans don't share the same norms with regards to eye-gazing, but they both may be aware (or not) of their overlapping cultures.

Cross-cultural misunderstandings can be humorous or serious. If you watch the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", and other cross-cultural movies. They are hilarious on the one hand. But, on the other hand, they can be a serious misunderstanding.

Cultural relativism and ethnocentrism

Cultural relativism is the recognition of cultural differences and the acceptance of the fact that each social group has its own set of cultural norms (Dwyer 2005, p 36).

On the other hand, ethnocentrism is prejudicial attitude towards the other culture and not accepting their cultural differences.

Cultural clash

Deaf people fight for language rights, human rights, equality, accesibility, etc. against hearing oppression. Hearing people are unaware of their own "hearing culture" that exists, that is often recognized and defined by Deaf people. And, hearing people are not aware of the existence of Deaf culture.

Culture is packed of norms, beliefs, values, etc. that hearing people have, such as the belief that language is central to speech, the belief that sign language hinders speech development, the value of speech and hearing, the attitude of speech as superior, the perception that deaf people are a disability, and so on.

In modern time, many Deaf people are more bilingual-bicultural that they can adapt well, when interacting with hearing people. Yet, they experience phonocentric oppression.

Conflict management

Sources of conflicts can be incompatible values, beliefs, values, and rules; assumptions and different expectations; misunderstandings or inadequate communication; and injust treatment.

"Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a distaster." -- Geert Hofstede (

This dual concern model of conflict resolution and negotiation describes how to negotiate or compromise cultural differences.

dual concern model
Dual concern model of conflict resolution

Collaborative approach is the win-win outcome. Competitive approach is the win-lose outcome. Compromise is the give and take appraoch.

Cross-cultural awareness and intercultural competency

Here is a few examples of the cross-cultural highlights and stories of the Deaf culture and hearing culture in groups of the cultural aspects.

Norms and values

On a scale of directness and indirectness, hearing people tend to be "beat around the bush," while Deaf people are more direct (like some other hearing cultures in Germany and Israel, for example).

American Deaf culture is more of a collectivist culture along with the hearing individualist culture in America. Time may have changed with technology where Deaf people may be a mix of collectivist and individualist culture, more or less to some degrees.

Within Deaf collectivist culture, reciprocity is more common. E.g. sharing information about receiving a great deal on a smartphone for Deaf people.


The ASL pronoun YOU is using an index finger making a deictic point in space. Pointing with an index finger is uncomfortable or rude in some cultures. In Japan, I'd point to something I'd like to purchase and immediately realize when I recognized that the sale persons use the whole hand pointing to the item for confirmation. From there on, I pointed using my whole hand.

Likewise, standing on a high hill in India, my Indian friend discreetly pointed with his hand toward his family home. As an observer, I recognized his gesture and learned his cultural norm.

Time (polychronic culture): Deaf people may arrive at events late and remain at these events until late. Relationships take precedence over schedules. Not all people practice the same. Time has changed with technology and accessibility.

Eye gaze involves culturally appropriate use of eye contact and communication.


Be aware of cross-cultural communication styles and different meanings in language. Not only between Deaf and hearing cultures, but it's also true for any cultures or languages.

E.g. If a hearing person asked in signing, "How did you find [country]?" in their English-speaking culture. A Deaf ASL speaker would think of this strange question as in "How did you know [country]?" Instead, the culturally competent person would sign, "What do you think of [country]" (glossed as [COUNTRY]/\ WHAT YOU THINK\/ ). The bilingual Deaf would likely know what the hearing person mean if the question were asked in written English but would be more likely perplexed if it was asked in ASL.

"How do you like your eggs?" Poached, soft. A monocultural second-language English speaker probably feels uncertain with this strange question involving "how" but anyway replies, "Um, I like them very much."

Deaf ASL instructor Angela Stratiy told a story about another cross-cultural meaning in a counseling setting. The counsellor emphatically said "Oh, too bad" in English. It is a positive connotation in context. The bad interpreter used a literal word-for-word translation of "too bad" in English for "TOO-BAD" in ASL. The Deaf client was taken aback. The ASL sign TOO-BAD has a lack of empath. A negative connotation. There is no positive connotation in any context. A culturally competent interpreter would not use it; instead, they would use another ASL sign for the equivalent meaning.

If a Deaf person nods his head as the interpreter translates the information, he is not nodding as in 'yes', but nodding as in listening. This misinterpretation could result in a big trouble if it's in a legal setting.

In a legal setting, when a lawyer asks a deaf defendant a question via an interpreter, "Did you [insert here]." A monolingual ASL deaf defendant might reply in ASL as (I'm avoiding a gloss here because it doesn't translate that ASL sign right). This ASL sign has different meanings in contexts. A culturally incompetent interpreter might translate word for word, "not yet." Wrong! This can put the Deaf person in prison. This ASL sign in this context means, "No, I never did." In another context, it means NOT-YET but not meaning in this context.

That's why many Deaf people sign more English-ish and fingerspell words for specific English words for an interpreter in some situations for the lack of trust in their interpreter's skills, especially in a sensitive situation.


To become more ethnorelative, keep mind-opened and flexible. Keep respect and empathy in mind. Communicate well -- ask for clarification, negotiate meaning, ask questions. Learn and understand the other culture's values, beliefs, norms, etc.

Related posts

Related posts: Ethnocentrism: the superiority of one's own culture / Cultural appropriation / Enculturation/acculturation: a journey into the Deaf world.

To understand Deaf culture is to understand your own hearing culture.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

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Expressing needs and wants

  1. Making commands or requests

Talking about activities

  1. Frequency of time: how often?

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.