It's OK to point. Why the rules of rudeness are different between Deaf and hearing cultures

In our new series Seen & Heard, director and ASL instructor Jack Volpe explains that being direct is necessary in sign language.

In our series Seen & Heard, ASL instructor Jack Volpe explains that being direct is necessary in sign language

Jack Volpe of Seen & Heard tells us why it's not rude to point in Deaf communities. (Seen & Heard)

In our new digital series Seen & Heard, streaming now, we follow the story of a 30-person Deaf and hearing theatre group in Montreal as they cast and stage a unique adaptation of The Little Mermaid for both a Deaf and hearing audience. As the group learned how to communicate with each other, they also had to learn about the different norms around rudeness when referring to people between Deaf and hearing cultures. 

The play's director and ASL instructor Jack Volpe tells us that when using sign language, being direct is necessary, not rude. "Deaf individuals tend to point and how they point identifies something." 

Watch the video:

In Seen & Heard a Deaf and hearing theatre company puts on a show in both verbal and sign language. There are big differences in norms between those languages and in this video the play's director Jack Volpe explains how pointing and other ways of being direct aren't considered rude in Deaf communities. 1:46

"You see that man over there?" (Volpe points) "Oh yeah!"

"Then you know who's being talked about. If you just use facial expressions, it's impossible to know who you're talking about. I see hearing people doing that, like, 'Over there!'" Volpe mimics subtle facial expressions with his eyes like a hearing person might as he says this. "Just point! Just say who you're talking about. Pointing is an easy way of identifying things."

An even more sensitive one, says Volpe, is needing to describe how people look in order to communicate clearly. "If you were talking about someone who was large, you would actually sign that.'s not meant to be insulting. You have to identify. 'Do you see that person there who's very thin?' I know who you're talking about."

Watch the Seen & Heard trailer:

"We're just trying to identify who's being talked about, but that could be insulting to the hearing community. But, really, that's how Deaf people identify what they're talking about. It's not meant to be rude, even though it can be perceived rudely by a hearing person." 

For Volpe, it's important that we understand these differences and know the context of how different communities communicate. "We have to accept these cultural differences. It's just different, and we have to have mutual respect for each other."

Find out more about Seen & Heard and stream the full series now!