Did I Hear You Say Something



It’s been a while since I got around to post. Been scheduling tentative work into commute train time. Just a quick moment last night thought you might appreciate. Written right after it happened, filled in this morning.

Say what?

A couple of dudes—probably around college age—walked on the train about 10 min ago, and sat down facing opposite each other. Which was a bit odd, as any time I've seen people together come on to a train they would sit next to each other, not across from each other. It's just harder to chat that way. And the train at this point (currently 913pm) is pretty empty, so it's not like room was an issue.

The answer came immediately as they started to silently chat in sign language. Easier I suppose to face each other on the opposite seating sides. As they continued chatting in sign language, I thought it would be nice to kind of recognize them. Given that I do not know sign language at all, I was trying to think of ways to bring something up without seeming like ‘oh, hi token deaf people.’

At this point we’re out of the subway tunnel and I’m tethered to internet on my computer and I quickly put this on my screen:

I showed it to the guy next to me, and motioned to the guy opposite me to check it out as well. They got a kick out of it judging by their faces. And they didn't seem to have taken the assumption of them being deaf negatively at all, and seemed to appreciate the message in happy amusement.

They started signing back, to which I had no idea what they were saying. I motioned to my computer, trying to hand them my laptop to type out the message instead of signing. But they didn't understand what I was doing either.

And so there’s this funny scene going down on the F subway train where three dudes are trying to silently communicate with each other to no avail, and one of the dude's is trying to give them his laptop. This goes on for a long 30 seconds or so.

A fun mission

Then all of a sudden one of the guys started abruptly talking. This took me by surprise on two accounts. One—that he could talk. And two—that he sounded like he learned how to talk naturally without any impediments that face many of those deaf. Then the other guy starts talking as well.

So now they start explaining their situation—they aren’t deaf, but know sign language. And they thought I was deaf and so were signing back, and themselves didn’t understand that I was trying to say that I wasn’t deaf. And yes—one of the guys heard about SignSchool!

I assumed they are students studying sign language. Which, it becomes clear, is another wrong assumption. They are Mormon missionaries. Which then I assumed they were studying to help persons who are deaf in poorer regions of the world. Again I assumed wrong, it turns out they are missionaries in New York.

In a couple of minutes the assumptions on both sides unravel. And at the end they are apologizing for thinking I was deaf, and I’m apologizing for thinking they were. Not in that it's a problem in the least bit of course, but more so a general joint recognition of the hilarity of the human mind’s biases. I was explaining how surprised I was that they maintained silence throughout. And they were explaining how they’ll have folks who are deaf try to chime in like that and took me for a deaf person.

(I still can’t figure out this part—I had a moment in the first few seconds when I thought the guy next to me might be practicing ASL if not for the slight vocal noises he was making under his breath. Which I took to be part of his deafness, when it might have been a little hiccup or catching himself from talking.)

It got me thinking. Our world is colored with many assumptions, and it helps us walk around and interpret the world without tremendous uncertainty. But it’s always great when a surprise comes our way that upends an assumption. What’s that quote, something about life being a process of unlearning? Kinda like a process of eliminating assumptions through one experience after another.

There are the darker assumptions which we gotta tear down, but for those of a more neutral color, we can allow room to see the co(s)mic fallibility of the human mind play out.

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