ASL Lessons | Bookstore | Library | ASL University Main ►

Yes or no answers in the Deaf Community:


Dr. Bill,
I was learning sign from another course before discovering your videos series and that instructor said when signing with someone in the deaf community, they would like more fuller answers rather than just yes or no. Is this correct?
- A.K.

Response from Dr. Bill:

Suppose I just typed one word (yes or no) in reply to your question?

Would you feel satisfied?

In this situation (you asking me a complex, culturally laden question) you probably want more than a yes or no answer. You probably want an "explanation" or exploration of the topic including examples and comparisons. 

I know this is true because another instructor told you something of which you are questioning the veracity of (whether it is right or wrong).

If I give you a simple yes or no answer without backing it up -- you will feel unsatisfied in "this" situation.

However, in some other situation where the facts are cut and dried if I were to expound on my answer beyond yes or no you might consider it a waste of your time and be annoyed by anything beyond a yes or no answer.

For example, suppose you ask me the question, "Do you want ketchup?"

If you ask me that in a busy situation where you are trying to prepare several meals for a table-full of individuals and I start waxing eloquent about my thoughts regarding ketchup and why I might want ketchup or not -- you will likely become annoyed.

It is very much the same in the Deaf community. Sometimes we want a yes or a no. Sometimes we want an expanded answer.

However the real issue here is that "an answer" -- regardless of the culture in which it is being asked -- should match the needs of the person asking the question.

The more context in the situation -- the shorter the answer can be.

The less context in the situation the longer the answer must be.

If the person asking the question has extensive knowledge of or experience regarding the topic -- which is to say "more context" -- the person answering the question should use more brevity (shortness) in their answer.

Thus the issue here is that for a very long time Hearing people have had more access to context than Deaf people. For example, many Hearing people would drive to work listening to the news or talking on their phone (while driving) to share or gain information.

Many Hearing people strike up a conversation with the person in front of or behind them in a grocery (or some other place) store line -- just because they can -- thus gaining more information and context about the world around them.

Such "additional context" is hard fought for, hard won, and much valued in the Deaf Community. We have to work harder as Deaf people to obtain context.

The issue isn't that Deaf people don't like yes or no answers. The issue is that Deaf people habitually / instinctively crave context and connection that Hearing people often take for granted.

When a yes or no question is asked in a high-context situation in the Deaf Community then a yes or no answer is fine.

If a yes or no question is asked in a low context situation (as is often the case) in the Deaf Community the person responding would do well to provide context for their yes or no answer.

If however you start providing context for an answer in an already context-saturated situation you are going to look like an idiot.

Thus the more aware you are of what your conversation partner (or audience) knows or doesn't know -- the more successful you will be in choosing the depth and breadth of your responses. Of course this applies to all cultures. It just so happens that in the Deaf culture you will more often need or want to add context than perhaps in some other culture.

I will also suggest that now with the penetration of smart phones, social media, and other forms of connection in the Deaf world we are experiencing an evolution in that sense of "connection" and context.

More often than ever I will start to "expand" on some answer and my wife (who is also Deaf) will "wave off" my expansion and inform me that she already knows about the topic. Our conversations are still fun and interesting -- just with much less expansion needed than in the past -- simply because we have been empowered by this incredible electronic network of news and information (in other words "context") -- thus in a large measure satisfying our thirst for context.




*  Want to help support ASL University?  It's easy
DONATE  (Thanks!)

Another way to help is to buy something from Dr. Bill's "Bookstore."

Want even more ASL resources?  Visit the "ASL Training Center!"  (Subscription Extension of ASLU)  

*  Also check out Dr. Bill's channel:

You can learn American Sign Language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University  
ASL resources by    Dr. William Vicars