How to Communicate More Effectively: Powerful Lessons from ASL Interpreters
Chances are that you’ve seen an ASL interpreter before. If you watched the Super Bowl this weekend, you saw an interpreter for the national anthem. We usually take their jobs for granted, but interpreting is some of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting work I have ever done.
My first time interpreting was five years ago, and I will never forget it. It was terrifying. I interpreted for my deaf friends in a big meeting, where I sat in front of 200 people. My face shined with sweat. My hands shook so badly that the Deaf people I was interpreting for couldn’t understand the first couple minutes of my interpreting.
Five minutes and I was done again. I hurried back to my seat, glad to be done. I couldn’t remember a single thing I signed, and I wasn’t sure if I got even half of the information presented.
Now, as I’ve learned more about professional interpreting, and as I’m preparing to get my license, I’ve realized that interpreting is so much more than relaying information.
An interpreter of any language acts as a bridge between cultures. Not only are they conveying information, but they are reshaping and restructuring the message for their clients based on their cultural and educational background.
Competent interpreters’ work starts long before their hands move. They take in the information, process it, and find the best way to portray the concepts of the message to the Deaf person or hearing person. You’ll notice that there is often a buffer time between the speaker and the interpreter because of this process.
Many essential skills for interpreting can also be applied to effective communication in general. These skills improve leadership ability and more.
As you read through these interpreting practices and experiences, I hope that you can apply it to your communication and improve your effectiveness.
Interpreters Consider Cultural Backgrounds
When interpreting between any two languages, you are also interpreting between cultures. Cultures influence people’s thoughts, beliefs, and lifestyles. It is important to understand how these influences affect communication patterns and norms.
For example, the United States, as a whole, is an extremely individualistic society. We are focused on excelling ourselves, and we value people that are rich and successful.
Deaf culture is considered a collectivist culture. The Deaf community also values people that do well for themselves from their community, but because it is good for the community as a whole.
Here are some more everyday examples of how individualistic versus collectivist culture influences people:
- Marcus, a Deaf man, is late to a meeting but isn’t worried because it was because he was catching up with a co-worker.
- Harold, a hearing man, is annoyed with Marcus when he is late.
- Marcus is offered a new job that requires him to move to a new state. He reaches out to his Deaf friends to ask for their opinions and to see if they have any information about the area.
- Harold is also offered a new job out of state. He researches online and decides to move without counseling with anyone.
- When signing with someone, Marcus expects an environment with good lighting and little visual distractions because his communication is visual.
- When communicating, Harold expects little background noise and doesn’t always look at the speaker when he’s talking.
As you can see, communication between cultures can take some extra thought. If you are interviewing someone or have an important interaction with someone in a different culture, take the time to understand their background. Sometimes people don’t associate with their native cultures, so don’t just assume. Take the time to get to know the person and their culture, and you will be able to communicate more effectively.
Interpreters Reshape Messages Based on Their Audience
Once you understand your audience, it is crucial to learn how to tailor the message to fit their needs. Interpreters with “Deaf heart” are advocates for the Deaf community, meaning that they take the time to ensure clear communication for the minority group.
When reshaping your message, consider the listener’s…
Also, be sure to consider the speaker’s…
The speaker (or yourself, if you are delivering the message) always has a motive behind what they are saying, and it is not always apparent. You might find it helpful to consider what your goal is and what you are doing to go about it. If your goal is to get someone’s phone number to ask them out, for example, you might lean towards them more and be more flirtatious in your speech. Always consider your goal.
For the listener, you want to consider their culture and education, and then shape your message to their needs. If you are a doctor, you are not going to tell a patient that they have a laceration in their axillary region; you are going to speak to their level and tell them that they have a deep cut near their armpit. On the other hand, if you are talking to other medical professionals, it would be offensive to “dumb down” your speech.
If you both know the jargon, use the jargon. You can usually gauge a person’s knowledge and experience pretty quickly. Take the time to adjust your communication to use their knowledge and beliefs to portray your message.
Interpreters Find the Core of the Message
I’m sure that more practiced interpreters are better at this, but the truth is — I miss a lot of information when I’m interpreting. Even the most experienced interpreters sometimes miss information.
The Deaf community is used to this, partially because regular communication is a similar experience. Have you ever walked away from a conversation remembering that you forgot to share a piece of vital information?
While interpreting is a little different from other forms of communication, this concept is the same — finding the core of your message. In other words, what’s the point?
The core of your message goes beyond the motive. When interpreting for a phone call between a person asking their neighbor’s son to babysit their dog, the base of the message is the request to watch the dog.
After you establish the core, you can better discern what details are important and what details aren’t. For example, an important detail would be the dates you are gone and how much you are willing to pay. A less important detail would be to review your dog’s list of medications (you can do this before you leave).
When public speaking, I like to use this model to structure my thoughts. I start with the core idea I want to portray, and then I build details from there. This way, all of my details, stories, etc. are pointed towards the main point — the reason why I’m addressing my audience.
Interviews can be conducted the same way. What qualities/skillsets are you looking for in candidates? After you figure this out, it can become the core of your interview, and all of your questions can point to those attributes and abilities.
Advocate For Your Audience
In the various training that I have received in interpreting, they have focused on the need to advocate for the Deaf community. Their history is riddled with oppression, prejudice, and abuse. Up until recent years, their language associated with their culture was banned worldwide. Because of this, interpreters need to equal the playing field in a sense.
Similarly, we should advocate for our audience in whatever aspect is needed. Advocating includes…
- recognizing cultural differences,
- tailoring your message to meet their communication needs,
- and finding the core of your message.
As you do this, you will find more success in your conversations, presentations, interviews, or whatever other modes of communication you use. I hope that this article has portrayed some of these concepts for you!
Even though my hands still sometimes shake when I’m interpreting, I much prefer this to my first experience. Now that I’m not as ignorant about what goes into interpreting, I’m able to apply these principles not only to interpreting — but to my communication in general.
Communication is so much more than spewing words at people. It is even more than delivering a message. Effective communication is how you make your message memorable.