Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, Ph.D.


Mansplaining has now become mainstream --that phenomenon of an arrogant man explaining what he knows about a subject to a woman who knows more than he does about the subject. Or as writer Rebecca Solnit notes the "intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of (the male) gender gets stuck."

I've experienced my share of mansplaining, but in one of my lines of work, I get a different version of this. Call it Hearingsplaining.

It happens when I'm at an academic conference, and someone approaches me during a short break. I'm alone, because I've told my interpreters to make themselves scarce, in hopes of seeming more approachable. I grew up hard of hearing, so I manage one-on-one conversations reasonably well without the interpreter.

I always hope that the approach is going to be like this: "Hi, I'm Sam. I work on trolleyology – what are you working on?"

Instead, the conversational gambit proffers usually looks like this: "Hi, I'm Sam. Wow, your interpreters are really expressive! I enjoy watching them!"

My response is usually, "Well, you know, what you think is expressiveness is probably grammar. American Sign Language isn't just hands waving around – it includes facial movement that is part of the grammar of the language."

And then, the response I get is, "No, I know expressiveness when I see it! They're just being really expressive."

Vintage Hearingsplaining from dudes with Ph.D.s.

It happens.

I persist, "I know it looks like expressiveness, but here, let me show you something."

I then switch to ASL, asking him two questions: "What's your field?" and "Do you work in ethics?"

Now, any ASL user will instantly spot what I've just done here, which is to show how these questions are differently inflected on the face.

I rinse and repeat, this time adding voice, and explaining the grammatical markers that I've just demonstrated. (And just so you know, I always add caveats – I'm not an ASL linguist, this isn't my first language, I don't do philosophy of language, and so forth…)

The Hearingsplainer will ignore my explanation and insist that he's right.

At this point I decide it is wise to change the subject, so I try to divert to our common ground – our profession.

The Hearingsplainer is having none of this, and pushes on to another subject. Pick one (inevitably we'll get to them all).

  • It must be impossible to sign abstract concepts in ASL.

    Um, really? Why would you think that? Give me an argument – you know, that thing we're trained to do…

  • Those interpreters are really great!

    Oh really? You know ASL? No? How do you know they're any good, then?

  • I once read an Oliver Sacks book about deaf people. Did you know that there's actually a college for deaf people where all instruction is in sign language?

    Um, yeah. I've heard of it. (Keep in mind we're at a conference – I've usually got a name badge on that identifies my institution.)

  • I envy you, knowing sign language. I'd love to know a universal language.

    Actually, ASL isn't a universal language. That's why they call it AMERICAN Sign Language.

    No, sign language is universal.

    Really, it isn't. I know a little BSL, and I've given conference talks in International Sign, but …

    It's not?!! But why not? It should be universal.

    Well, why isn't there a universal spoken language? Wouldn't the same factors apply?

  • That must be so hard, what the interpreters are doing.

    Yeah, their job isn't easy, but it is a lot of work for me too – since they don't know the field, I have to do a lot of prep work before we even get to the conference. We work together as a team.

NOTE: As far as typical comments go, this isn't offensive, but I like trying to give a more comprehensive view of what is happening – I'm working as hard as the interpreters are!

When we finally finish talking about interpreting, sometimes I get lucky. Sometimes the Hearingsplainer asks me what I work on…

So, what's your research about?

Bioethics and genetic selection. Mostly non-identity problem stuff, but I'm also interested in genetic alteration.

Hearingsplainer: Say, did you know that some deaf people actually want to have deaf children?

(excitedly) Yes, actually that is one of the primary questions I work on! I wrote a dissertation on this…

Hearingsplainer interrupts: No really, they do! (Note: at this point I start to wonder if the Hearingsplainer is hard of hearing…) Did you know that there are entire families where everyone is deaf? And they view their difference as a cultural difference and not a disability? Isn't that interesting?

(looking around for interpreter) Why yes, I'm aware of that. Have you read Padden and Humphries? I'm not sure I buy the cultural argument, though I think it was a brilliant move to shift the conversation from deficit thinking and the medical model of disability…

Hearingsplainer interrupts again: And did you know that Deaf people are opposed to that surgery, you know, the one that can make you hear again? Have you heard of it?

(I'm now on the verge of wanting to scream or bang my head on the wall, but I can't because I am the only deaf person at this conference, and Hettie Belle Ege's words, "Remember who you are and what you represent" are running through my head like a mantra.)

Cochlear implant surgery? Yes, I actually wrote an article…

Hearingsplainer interrupts yet again: Say, have you considered getting that surgery? It might help you, and then you wouldn't need interpreters at the conference.

Well, cochlear implant surgery isn't for everyone, and it isn't a panacea. I know people with cochlear implants who function more like hard of hearing people when it comes to listening comprehension, especially in noisy environments like this…

Hearingsplainer interrupting yet again: That reminds me, I once saw a movie on PBS about this family where one of the kids wanted a cochlear implant, but the deaf parents didn't want her to have one. And they showed a baby after he got an implant, and he could really HEAR! You should take a look at that movie.

Oh, sure I know Sound and Fury! That's an interesting movie… I've used it in my critical reasoning class for over a decade as a pedagogical tool, and once gave a paper that analyzed the arguments used in the movie…

Hearingsplainer: Say, there's John! I need to talk to him for a minute. Nice to talk to you – it is such an inspiration to know you're in the profession.

Works Cited

1. Rebecca Solnit, "Why Mansplaining is Still A Problem," Alternet, http://www.alternet.org/why-mansplaining-still-problem?paging=off, accessed 18 November 2012.

2. Alicia A. DeCoudreaux, "Inaugural Address," http://www.mills.edu/inauguration/inaugural-address-page4.php, accessed 18 November 2012

Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, Ph.D. is a philosopher and bioethicist at Gallaudet University. An emerging poet whose work has been recognized by the National Hispanic Culture Center, Teresa is an award-winning blogger for Duke City Fix, and currently blogs at Deaf Echo. She is writing a philosophical memoir about grief and resilience.