What Role Does Civility Play in the Sign Language Interpreting Profession?

Sign Language Interpreter Demonstrating CivilityIf the work we do as sign language interpreters requires that we convey messages not only with words but also with our demeanor, shouldn’t we consider what our demeanor conveys?  I propose that demeanor is the face of civility and the effective use of civil behavior can enhance all aspects of the sign language interpreting profession.


The significance of civility was summarized succinctly in a single sentence by Sheila Suess Kennedy (1997), “We cannot find common ground without civility, and we cannot solve our problems without finding common ground” (p. 164).   Additionally, Sara Hakala (2012) suggests,  “Polite and respectful behavior is vanishing from our world today. Bullying, hostile and polarizing political interactions, tasteless and tactless comments delivered without discretion, everyone talking at once but nobody listening — we are treating one another badly in our day-to-day lives and our relationships are fragmenting and deteriorating as a result” (pp. 1-2).

We see examples of incivility daily.  On television, during an award ceremony a famous musician has the microphone ripped out of her hand by another musician while delivering her acceptance speech. On the road, we are cut off and it ruins the rest of our day. We are angered that this person dares to get away with this type of behavior. In our work, when an interpreting colleague offers a “feed” at a time that is not appropriate for our own interpreting process.  Or when an interpreter colleague offers critical feedback that was not sought out by the working interpreter? Small instances of incivility like these can cause further spinoffs of incivility that send ripples forward to other people we encounter.

Dr. P. M. Forni (2010) shares, “In opinion surveys, Americans say incivility is a national problem – one that has been getting worse” (p. 146).

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can end the cycle. Sara Hacala (2012), champions the idea that civility is a mind-set that encompasses values and attitudes that help us embrace our shared humanity and society.

Forni’s work emphasizes how closely civility and ethics are tied. But what is civility and how does it apply to sign language interpreting? Although we talk frequently about a professional code of conduct, and respect for those we encounter, have we left civility out of our fundamental, daily practice?

The Fundamentals

Beyond a code of conduct, understanding the importance and value of a code of decency has the potential to lead us to a more civil approach to life. Decency can take on many forms and yet, at times, is very difficult to exemplify.  With the dawn of technology and in a world of quick responses, clearly conveying meaning can be difficult.  A quick email from a colleague may be taken as an impersonal and cold communication, but in reality, intentions may be overlooked.  Perhaps in writing the email, they were simply in a hurry. Rather than assuming the best, we often are insulted at the rudeness of the email. How can we increase awareness regarding the importance of civility in a world that relies on speed?  How can we increase awareness when a lack of regard for how others may perceive our messages is standard place?

What about civility and decency in sign language interpreting and interpreter education? Would increased civility in the field of interpreting allow us to find solutions to the problems and challenges currently facing the field? Would an increased awareness of civility allow us to support our colleagues, find solutions to the thorny problems surrounding certification, and better help our future interpreters work and interact with the world with equanimity?

Carolyn Ball

Carolyn Ball

Civility & Leadership

In considering the importance of civility we must also consider how civility relates to leadership, and vice versa. Leadership is commonly thought of as a process in which an individual leads or influences others. Great leaders embody civility.  According to Forni (2010), choosing to be a civil leader should be a central concern in our lives. He also believes that civility is not a philosophical abstraction but a code of decency that can be applied in everyday life.

Franklin Roosevelt said, “Without leadership that is alert and sensitive to change, …we lose our way” (Leuchtenburg, 1995, p. 28). Strong attributes of civility and decency often epitomize strong and revered leaders.  Do the leaders of our profession embody civil leadership?  Is there room for change?

Sign language interpreters and interpreter educators alike can benefit from increasing leadership skills that increase sensitivity and responsiveness; both imbue civility. Interpreter educators have wide reaching spheres of influence and lead many students headlong into their careers.  But, do they see themselves as leaders who demonstrate civility? Do they see themselves as leaders at all? By placing a strong and explicit emphasis on civility, new interpreters are more likely to be successful. For example, it is clear that working in the interpreting profession depends on repeat business.  Interpreters who have strong interpersonal skills are more likely to be employed and remain employed. Further, patrons of interpreting services prefer, and even seek services from, companies and individuals who have a good command of civility.


Interpreter educators can facilitate civility in the classroom by teaching compassionately. Compassionate teaching includes respect for students, helping them realize their full potential. In order to reach full potential as well-integrated members of society and the sign language interpreting profession, students must be exposed to civility through educators and curriculum.

Compassionate teachers increase their students’ awareness of civility and, as a result, students will be able to develop civility in self-expression and become mindful of civility.  This will play out in their demeanor, the face of civility.  Resulting in the advancement and promotion of effective business communication strategies that will, in turn, have a positive and cascading effect on those with whom they interact. Conversely, an underdeveloped expression of civility will have a negative effect and may play a role in consumer dissatisfaction.

Civility & Repeat Business

If all interpreters, educated through formal training, were given a clear sense of the importance of civility in the workplace and in interactions with colleagues, perhaps more recent graduates would benefit from repeat business and high levels of job satisfaction.  We might also expect them to go on to become leaders in the field, or even educators themselves.   Instead, many new interpreters and graduates get burned out without ever fully understanding why.

With the current shortage of sign language interpreters, do interpreter educators have an obligation to convey the importance of civility to their students?

I acknowledge the room for disagreement in the house of civility.  But to close, I will side with Emerson and his belief that, “life is not so short, but there is always time for courtesy” (1894).

What role can civility play in interpreting?




Bain, K. (2004) What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Emerson, R. W. (1894). The sage of concord. M. Watkins (Ed.), American Literature. New York: American Book Company.

Forni, P.M., (2010, July 20). Why civility is necessary for society’s survival.

Dallas News.  Retrieved on September 13, 2012 at http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/sunday-commentary/20100723-p.m.-forni-why-civility-is-necessary-for-society_s-survival.ece

Forni, P. M., (2002) Choosing civility the twenty-five rules of considerate conduct.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Hacala, S., (2012). Saving Civility: 52 Ways to tame rude, crude and attitude for a polite planet. Skylight Paths, Woodstock, VT.

Kennedy, Sheila Suess. (1997) What’s a nice republican girl like me doing in the ACLU. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.


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About the Author

Carolyn Ball, Ph.D., is The Executive Director of the VRS Interpreting Institute (VRSII) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Before this position, Carolyn was as an Associate Professor of Interpreting and Director of the American Sign Language & Interpreting Program at William Woods University in Fulton, MO. Additionally, she was the Coordinator of the Interpreter Training Program at Salt Lake Community College. She received her B.S., and her M.A. in from Brigham Young University—then earned her Ph.D. in 2007 in Adult Education from Capella University. Carolyn’s research passion is the history of interpreter educators. She has served on the Conference of Interpreters Board for twelve years. Carolyn is the proud aunt of 17 nieces and nephews and spends her free time riding her Trek Madone road bike.

12 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Erin McHenry Trimble says:

    I think you are spot on here. I will make it my goal today to be civil in all of my interactions…with my team interpreters, with the professors, with the hearing students, and with the Deaf students.
    Thank you for the inspiration!

  2. Sandra Bartiromo says:

    Hi Carolyn, I’m so happy to hear about the need to revisit this notion of civility in curriculum. We teach “character counts” and other such “soft skills” in high school classes but seem to have omitted it in college curriculum. I often see my collegues talk badly about and uncivil directly to other staff and faculty with this tone of voice and body language that surprises me. Somewhere in our curriculum we should return to our early childhood education that imparts ” do onto others as you would…” or perhaps the phrase from the story of “Bambi” where mother say “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”.
    We should all strive to soften our approach while training our students. We also can benefit from speaking more gently and considerate of our collegues.

    • Carolyn Ball says:

      Hi Sandra.. I agree with you that we need a softer approach. That is one of the main reasons that we are hosting the VRSII Civility and Leadership Symposium this weekend here in SLC. This certainly is important.

  3. Hi! quick comment: Team interpreting is challenging. Each person is responsible for the message individually. I have had team terp experiences where the person felt my feed was ill-timed etc… I think it is important to recognized that teaming can be awkward: taking two independent contractors (who have honed their skills as solo practitioners)and merging them into a team for a day. I personally err on the side of the message being accurate rather than not stepping on toes in deference to the interpreter. Of course, this is done politely/respectfully/civilly I hope, with all eyes on the speaker and full attention to the interaction. You’re working hard. I’m working hard. I find it most challenging when I am the outside interpreter and my team is the local person and for some reason there are sections of the voicing that are off. This is more awkward for an interpreter to have an outside team terp come and be redoing sections of the message etc… I have a hard time letting chunks/details that are misinterpreted (generally voicing) go by. Thanks for posting! ;o) Have great day!

  4. Ben Karlin says:

    Hello Colleagues and especially hello to you, Carolyn,
    What a delight to read your comments here.

    There is an aspect of negotiation in every interpreted interaction. Civility makes success in those negotiations go so much more easily. Even when there is conflict, the interpreter’s courtesy to both/all parties goes a long way towards prevent the insertion of the interpreter into the mess by the interactants.

    When it is seen to be something extended to all involved, it also fosters trust in the interpreter. This trust extends beyond simply trusting that messages are being conveyed, but also as to personal integrity.

    How do we teach this? First is by modeling it, secondly, by mentors specifically addressing the principles underlying this kind of practice, as well as in debriefing after assignments pointing out how these principles, or failure to apply them, affected the interaction. For this I have seen nothing more valuable than close dissection of videotapes of interpreted interactions. Even improvised scenarios have valuable information concealed in them.

    Look forward to reading more on the topic and, Carolyn, from you!

    Ben Karlin
    Saint Louis, Missouri USA

  5. Terri Hayes says:

    Wonder if anyone has noticed the irony between the messages being delivered in the last two posts on this blog.

    on the quesiton of civility – I would caution – that for the most part, people seem to think being “civil” means “to yield”… to “be nice”…

    but there are times (often times), when that interpretation – will serve to do no more than support refined manipulation

    when we are being so “nice” that correction cannot happen without offense – and the truth gets buried beneath piles and piles of “civility”.

    • Carolyn Ball says:

      Hi Terri,

      Yes great point! Yes, Civility doesn’t mean that being so nice means that correction cannot happen. Correction can occur and in a way that doesn’t leave the other team feeling like they are worthless. Civility can be telling the truth in ways that are not demeaning or putting one down, yet truthful. Great point.

      • Terri Hayes says:

        smiling – but… I wasn’t necessarily talking about teaming…
        I was talking about Interpreting… as a profession… this field is quite shy of honesty and famous for the dictate to be nice (i.e. make me feel good) “or I’ll complain that you’re unethical”
        If one knows that anything they say – can -and will probably be held against them.. it becomes more and more difficult for anyone to choose to say anything at all.
        and when silence is defined as civility -
        we have a problem.

  6. There is an irony here too in that the D/HH/DB communites culturally are blunt/more direct, and this can become incorporated by the interpreter into how s/he interacts personally and professionally. I see this in myself. I think there are personal reasons (getting older, raising teens ;o), staying married, paying taxes ie: staying responsible as a community member, etc…) along with daily interactions with the Deaf Community that can bring a direct quality to your communications. Another person may find that directness offensive.

  7. Carolyn,

    Thank you for a wonderful post, and the subsequent opportunity to dialogue. You have framed this in a way I hadn’t considered before and I’m thankful for the chance to look at this through a new lens.

    I would add that in order to be “authentically” civil, one needs a high level of self-awareness. If I am a practitioner who is unaware of what triggers less-than-civil behavior, any attempts to become more civil may appear ingenuine and will likely be short-lived. Your message, for me, reinforces the need to incorporate tools for self-exploration and understanding into interpreter curriculum so that we can be civil from a place of pure intent.

    Thanks again for opening this door, I hope the Symposium went beautifully!

  8. Rebecca Weinberger says:

    The concept of civility is a way to shut down any conversation about power and responsibility. For example, in the first story in a lecture posted on this site (http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/12/deaf-disempowerment-and-todays-interpreter/) Trudy Suggs explains that it was disempowering to have a hearing interpreter reassure a hearing receptionist who had been rude to Suggs. What compelled that interpreter to reassure the receptionist was, I would posit, civility and wanting to be hired back at that location – exactly the things you are arguing for here – but those motives were disempowering to the deaf consumer. Who are we talking about being civil to and who is hiring us back? Probably hearing people. Also who is seen as civil is not applied the same way across all people. People of Color, Women, young people, are all often seen as being impolite or angry when doing the same things that someone not in those groups could do without outside comment. Deaf people are often seen by hearing people as being uncivil or impolite when fighting for their rights or when simply signing because of the way ASL is seen by uninitiated hearing people. Disrupting oppressive power dynamics, attempting to be allies to deaf people in all of their intersecting identities, these are not always about being civil. We should listen to deaf people about how to best support them, and sometimes that will be making nice and sometimes it won’t – knowing how to make nice is an important skill for interpreters to have. But it is unhelpful to act as if telling interpreters to be civil is divorced from talking about being allies, divorced from race, class, gender, and disconnected from talking about and to deaf people themselves.

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