Every friendship, every relationship relies on communication. Two beings cannot have a connection if they’re not able to understand each other. Otherwise, they’d be two mute people awkwardly staring at each other in an empty room. Granted, not all communication is verbal. At this moment, my dog is laying to my left, on my bed. He’s putting his paw on my forearm, gazing at me intently, and wagging his tail. Clearly, he wants my attention (Sorry, Bailey. This blog isn’t going to type itself). While canids like Bailey cannot communicate verbally, they have to use physical touching with their primate compadres (that would be us, humans).

Dogs cannot get through the day without some form of touching. Whether it’s lying on your lap, asking for a tummy rub, nudging at your hand to pet them, etc, they need to touch and be touched because it’s how they communicate. Primates only accept touching when they complete the verbal phrase first. You can’t have a romantic connection with someone if you didn’t have a few conversations first. Romance is rooted in understanding the other person: what makes them tic, what they’re passionate about, and so forth.

Communicate from a distance first, and watch that physical gap shrink overtime.

Of course, you’re wondering why I’m writing about this. I mean, I’m spouting everyday knowledge here, right? Thing is, for most of my life I’ve had a somewhat synthetic relationship with the art of conversation. I was born deaf and had to learn to speak manually (moreso than others, if you will). Now, I could always speak coherently. It was the hearing/understanding others part of it that was a struggle. My cochlear implant only has 22 channels (compared to the several thousand that the “hearing” brain has) of processing sound. Fortunately, only 8 (last I checked) channels are needed for speech. Often, when I’m conversing with somebody their words often get jumbled together and to me, it sounds like gibberish. For much of my childhood, I lacked the courage to ask people to repeat themselves and hope they wouldn’t say, “forget it” and walk away. To my own detriment, I would simply look at the person, smile, shrug, and hope they weren’t asking a question.

A few years ago, I was a student at UConn. During my first 2 weeks there, I was invited to as table of girls at lunchtime (UConn students were a very friendly, down-to-earth bunch. Of all the universities I’ve been to, their student body holds the largest place in my heart). They mostly invited me because I was the new, deaf guy that knew ASL. Naturally, they were curious and wanted to know more about my background. As soon as I sat down, one of the girls started speaking so rapidly that I couldn’t process a single word she said. She was excited, she wanted to ask me something. She kept going and going and going, and I had already locked up at that point. As soon as she stopped, I made a faint shrug and hoped she only made a general comment. Instead, her enthusiastic smile (god, it pains me so much to type this) quickly dissolved into a frown as I changed the topic by asking everybody else “so what are your majors?” The girl in question didn’t say anything else for the duration of the conversation.

Looking back, I’ve felt so terrible about it. What if she said something like, “Hey, I have a friend/family member that is deaf, could you teach me to sign?” or something along those lines? The worst part is, I never got her name. In fact, I don’t remember any of their names (I was extrememly reclusive that year. It was no one’s fault but my own. The UConn students did what they could to make me feel welcome.) Since I don’t have any of their names, I have no way of tracking her down on social media. This particular interaction will probably haunt me for the rest of my life, all because I didn’t have the courage to say, “Haha, could you slow down? I didn’t catch that. 🙂 “

It’s been a horrendous habit of mine since I was a kid. Granted, I was a lot worse back then when it came to the art of conversation. Even if I could hear what people said, I didn’t know how to respond to it. I literally did not know how to carry a conversation with anybody. Your average person learns by mimicking family members and following their example. The people in my household were quite aloof (won’t get into that), so I had no reference point when it came to interaction at school. Since I couldn’t learn by hearing them, I would have to learn visually.

And that’s where my local deaf school and ASL come in. When I started attending a deaf school during my sophomore year in high school, I not only had to learn a new language, I had to learn how to interact, too. Private conversations in deaf schools are virtually non-existent. Everyone can literally see conversations being carried out from across the room. Little social perk of ours.

As I saw these conversations being carried, I studied people. I studied how they utilized facial expressions, eye contact, and more importantly, the content of the conversations themselves (“what exactly is it people like to talk about?”) As time went, I got better. I actually became more human, strange to say. The art of conversation was granted to me at last. The winter clouds parted and the summer sun shone through from the heavens.

Though I’d like to say that I’m one hundred improved, it just isn’t the case. My anxiety still rises to the point where I can be nonverbal. My anxiety acts up where I come across as cold and uncaring, just like what happened with the girl from UConn. If she’s reading this, I hope some closure can be found. I know some people see me as a representation of an entire community. Sometimes I leave a bad impression, because at the end of the day I’m flawed.

…Just not as flawed as I used to be, and I’m thankful.

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