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The sign of the fat man

by Charlie Swinbourne

29th September 2008

It was when I returned home from my first term at university that I realised something totally unique about the deaf world. Something unique that could easily be mistaken for downright rudeness.
A fried breakfast
I'd unwisely started to indulge in an unhealthy morning habit of 99p full English breakfasts from a student cafe conveniently situated near my halls of residence. Then at the end of the day, I found myself drinking an ale or two most evenings. Thus I returned home a bigger and more substantial person than I'd left. In short, I put on a bit of weight.

At the time, I had no idea that I'd expanded, though my trousers had admittedly got a lot tighter lately. My 'hearing' university friends had been polite enough not to mention anything to me at all, but on my first trip back home politeness went out the window.

On walking into my local deaf club, I went from being blissfully unaware, or in denial, about my newly formed beer belly and double chin, to getting a short sharp shock within seconds.

With dizzying speed, three people I'd known since childhood came up to me, gave me a hug (a common warm greeting in deaf circles) before taking a look at my midriff and reacting in a classic sign language style. Each made a gesture outlining my growing gut.

Before I could get a (love) handle on just how different I looked to them, I'd been treated to three signed versions of: "you've got a big fat belly!" No subtlety at all - they made it look like I was with child. I gingerly went to the bar and, recognising the truth at last, ordered a Diet Coke for the first time in my life.

That night, I had two revelations. Firstly, I had to cut out the cooked breakfasts urgently. Secondly, and more importantly, I realised how direct deaf culture can be.

So, why are deafies so very direct? Perhaps the root is in the nature of sign language itself. BSL (British Sign Language) is communicated through hand movement, body language and facial expression. Since it's physical, it's rarely subtle. Spoken English, however, will typically couch bad news in gentler phrases using perhapses, mights and maybes. And if describing a bit of excess weight, English speakers might use euphemisms like "you're getting very cuddly" or "you've filled out lately".
An obese man
The sign for someone who is overweight differs greatly from simply saying the word 'overweight'. That's just a word. The sign involves miming the outline of their body with your hands, while possibly puffing out your cheeks, strongly symbolising 'FAT!' - it's probably the least subtle sign you'll see in every day sign language. Potentially, this could lead to offence if you're sensitive about it.

By the same token, you can imagine how you might sign that someone is bald (a hand sliding backwards across your head), that someone has some spots (dotting your fingers on your face) or that someone has buck teeth (index and middle fingers, together, pushed up to your front teeth). So there's real potential to insult someone because of their looks, and if you're even more unlucky, one of these signs might become your sign name. It's a tough, cruel world out there.

This may seem a little harsh but these signs are not intended to be offensive. Rather, they're stating a fact. Visually. Physically. Through space. Which is where BSL differs to spoken English. How else would you do it? It might be concluded, then, that subtlety isn't signing's strong point.

Another cause of the directness in deaf culture has something to do with how spread out the deaf community is. Generally, deaf people don't live in groups, they are located all over the country. So, many deaf people work in a hearing environment and don't get a chance to communicate in their preferred language during the day. When they finally meet with each other - at a pub, a deaf club or an event - the stories, events and adventures they've had since they last met are stored up like a pressure cooker, just waiting to explode in a blur of hands.

Given this short window of time in which to converse, it's no surprise that there's little room for small talk. Deafies cut straight to the chase, saying exactly what happened - to whom, when and how. It can get personal. Quickly.

As soon as conversations start, Deafies launch into their tales with a passion that is often misinterpreted as 'aggressiveness' by non sign-aware bystanders (and occasionally bouncers) in the pub. Deafies aren't throwing punches though, they're making beautiful words in the air - and deaf hands waxing lyrical after a week-long silence have a habit of throwing elbows back, jabbing passers-by and knocking drinks over. In these situations, it's best to treat your spilled drink as collateral damage rather than anything more personal.

The direct and open side of the signing world is probably the thing that surprises people most when they first enter the deaf community.

I've lost count of the number of people I've met who entered a deaf club for the first time and came out amazed that, at the start of a conversation, they got asked very personal questions - like whether they were single or not, how big their mortgage might be, or whether they'd be interested in joining a deaf nudist group!

This side of the community might come as a shock, but for me, it's also one of the deaf world's biggest plus points. When you meet someone and have such an open conversation, you tend to have a far more interesting and in depth chat than you would with your average spoken language person (with a few exceptions maybe).

With deaf folk, while you need to grow a thick skin without delay, you'll also immediately become privy to a soap opera of captivating tales - whether it's the date they had that turned into a disaster earlier that week, that sensitive operation they needed (in excruciating, blood curdling detail), or even how that bloke Charlie came back from university with a massive beer belly…

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