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.