There is an understanding when practicing mindfulness that will help us greatly in our ASL fingerspelling communication and it’s the concept of interbeing. Interbeing is a term coined by Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, to describe the fact that we are interconnected with everything around us. His example is that when we look deeply at a flower, we can see the rain, the cloud, the soil...everything necessary for that flower to come into being. The same can be said of ASL—we come to the conversation with our current skill level and whatever else is going on for us that day and so does the other person. All these conditions make up the conversation we’re about to have. Many times in my career, I have seen professional, competent interpreters pay zero attention to the needs of the Deaf consumer. I’ve seen students pay zero attention to the needs of their signing partner. Here’s my point—good communicators are present for the ones with whom they’re communicating. When we can be present for each other, great communication happens. We will know if what we fingerspelled was understood, if we need to sign for clarity or speed and in this chapter, we’ll learn ways to help our communications flow more effortlessly. Now, we will address a few common questions that tend to be asked regarding fingerspelling etiquette:
How do I handle my mistakes?
It’s instinct when we make a fingerspelling error to want to air erase it like it’s some great catastrophe but think about what this does to the eyes. It’s analogous to me making a verbal error and then waggling my tongue loudly for a few seconds. Respect the signing space, keep it clean and purposeful. Best way to handle fingerspelling mistakes is to just do an “eye blink,” a slight exaggerated blink to show that you have erred. If the word is short, 4 letters or so, begin again and sign it over. If it’s a long word you can just back it up to the mistaken letter and keep going.
Being aware of the other is important when we make errors. If you make a fingerspelling blunder, ask yourself, did the person catch the word, in spite of the botch? If so, don’t worry about identifying the error, just keep going. Think of it from the standpoint of mispronunciation, we don’t always correct a verbal slip if our communication is still understood.
What if the person I’m signing with makes a fingerspelling error?
If you understand what is fingerspelled despite the error, just keep going. If you do not understand, interrupt with an attention-getting-hand-wave and sign “fingerspell” “again.” In this way, the entire conversation doesn’t need to be repeated and conversation can continue to flow naturally.
Where should I look when watching someone else fingerspell?
Not at the hand! Does this come as a surprise? In signed conversation, fingerspelling or otherwise—we always wish to maintain eye contact. I learned this lesson the hard way, and it was never taught to me in my Interpreting Training Program, but by a professional colleague. I had received an offer to teach ASL at Lake Tahoe Community College, but before I accepted the position, I met with my Deaf team instructor who, after conversing for a spell, shared that I had to get over my habit of looking at her hand when she fingerspelled! She explained that in the time it takes to break eye contact and look at the hand, the fingerspelled word could be over and done with! So, when we look to the hand, we either 1) miss the fingerspelled word entirely or 2) the signer is forced to slow down, wait for the eye gaze transition and all of this interrupts the flow of conversation and impacts the message. Remember, too, that over 60% of ASL relies on facial expression to convey meaning, so, if we’re breaking away, we’ll miss all the emotive indicators.
Where should I place my hand?
The dominant hand is traditionally used to fingerspell, unless of course you have a physical limitation, then it’s acceptable to use your non-dominant hand. The key is to maintain consistency and not bounce back and forth with your hand choice. Our signing partners will appreciate not having to play ping-pong! The hand should be just in front of the shoulder and a comfortable distance from the body at about 6-8 inches. Also, as is the cultural norm, we’re looking at the eyes of the one whom we’re communicating. If the person you sign with is struggling to read your fingerspelling for a variety of reasons, you can compassionately move your hand a bit closer to your face and make it easier on them. To do this, however, you must pay attention and know the needs of the other.