Suppose there are two people talking in sign language. What should you do when you have to walk in between them in order to reach your destination? If the people were talking verbally (say, in English), you would walk through the two without hesitation.

But does sign language cause the etiquette to be different?

I thought about this recently when I was attending a recent tour. As part of it, the attendees listened to a few talks in an auditorium. Since I had a sign language interpreter, I naturally sat in the front corner seat of the room. Fortunately, I didn’t play my usual role of the “human repellent.” Despite there being lots of empty seats, some of the other people actually sat next to me instead of being afraid of the sign language and consequently sitting as far away from me as possible. (I hope that’s the reason why people generally don’t sit next to me …)

I didn’t know anyone else in the tour, so during breaks within the talks, I would strike up some conversations with the sign language interpreter. At the same time, a lot of the other attendees needed to get up and walk to the back of the auditorium, presumably to fetch a new batch of Starbucks coffee. But this meant that many had to cut through me and the sign language interpreter. Throughout the tour, I noticed two classes of people:

  1. Those who walked through our conversation quickly and without hesitation.

  2. Those who paused and nervously glanced at me and the interpreter, wondering about what to do.

I’m here to reassure you that (1) is much better than (2). If you need to walk between us to go somewhere, please do it (quickly).

I think most people who engage in (2) are those who do not have much experience with sign language and “deafness” more generally, so their reaction is certainly understandable (and a sign of politeness, I might add). When this situation happens, usually the sign language interpreter will quickly motion for the person to walk through, and then he or she will do a little sprint and then continue walking.

Perhaps people are worried about some unknown rules of sign language etiquette? If so, don’t worry: I don’t find walking between us to be rude at all, and I have yet to meet anyone who gets bothered by this. It doesn’t interfere with our conversation that much, because (just like in English audio) if a second of the conversation (or audio) gets cut, we can usually fill in the details by means of continuity, which comes with experience using the language.

If there’s a group of people who have to walk between us, then it’s a different story. When that happens, we have to pause the sign language until everyone gets through, but that’s understandable; we don’t want to be jerks and force everyone to take a far more roundabout route.

To state the obvious, though: if there’s a way to get to your destination without cutting through our conversation, you should consider that alternative route, but if that would require squeezing between a twelve-inch gap between the wall of the auditorium and the back of my interpreter’s chair and making yourself look silly in the process, please don’t do it. If you would walk between us without hesitation if we were talking in English, then you can safely walk in between a sign language conversation. That doesn’t mean walk, then stop, examine your clothes, fiddle around, and so forth. If you take more than a second, you’ll annoy us. Just act normally, please. That goes for a lot of other things related to deafness that I’ve experienced in my life.