As a Deaf person who signs, I have had more than my share of annoying encounters with well-intentioned hearing people. Many times, they are trying to be nice, and that is commendable. Many times, too, they are simply nervous and unsure what to do/say. In part, what they say may depend on the nature of the encounter. As an example, someone who has a Deaf friend and who feels the need to tell me that in Starbucks might say different things (and be less nervous, perhaps) than someone who came up to me asking for directions with no prior knowledge I was Deaf.
Anyway, enough chatter. Onward to five things hearing people should avoid saying when they meet a Deaf signer.
1) "My sister wants to learn sign language." (So many variations on this, but you get the idea.) I'll go ahead and include, "I have a friend who is deaf. We write to each other."
Why you shouldn't say it: Because it basically means your sister wants to learn sign language but can't be bothered to yet. Or because...who cares? I mean, really. Who cares about some stranger's sister or that you write to your deaf friend? Surely you have something more interesting to say. If you don't, there's the door. ;)
Lines like this I get ALL the time, and it becomes so boring and tedious. I am more than a Deaf person, you know? Sure, the Deaf aspect may be the most evident to you, but your sister wanting to learn sign is the best you can do?
2) "I used to know the alphabet/some signs but forgot."
See #1 above, plus: You used to know the alphabet but don't now. That isn't going to help us communicate at present any better, and it certainly isn't a compliment that you did not pursue sign language.
So, if you fall under #1 or #2, what do you say? Definitely don't say #3!
3) "Oh, I'm sorry!"
This exclamation is usually accompanied by widening eyes and a look of horror upon realization that I am Deaf and that you SPOKE to a Deaf person. Geez, lady (or germ). Chill. It isn't the end of the world that you made a faux pas.
4) "I wish you could hear this music," and its cousin, "You are lucky you can't hear this music."
Don't. Just don't--for so many reasons. Take your patronizing and/or pitying tone and your wishes, and go play in the road. ;)
5) "I saw you were signing, and I had to tell you I am learning sign language."
Typically accompanied by awkward signing, although sometimes it can be skillful. On this one, I believe opinions vary. Some Deaf people like the intro. I don't. I'm tired of well-meaning hearing people. Just leave me alone. ;)
Taken by themselves, each of the above do not seem so bad. However, given that I get several variations of them a week plus many more well-meant communication headaches, the irritation seriously multiplies.
If you want to tell a Deaf person that so and so knows sign or wants to know sign, don't. If the person who wants to learn is you, actually DO learn sign. If you go up to someone to ask where Main Street is and realize the person is Deaf, get your phone or a pen and pencil, and ask your question another way. Try not to make it the obligation of the Deaf person to hunt for communication tools. If you have nothing like that on you, at least don't say, "I'm sorry," even if you are.
The people you speak to are more than Deaf people. When all you can see is a Deaf person, you need to expand your worldview. Next time you are introduced to a Deaf person at a family or friends gathering, quietly tuck away, "I used to know how to fingerspell!" and ask about a sports team. The weather. Books. Yeah, you can do it, and we look forward to it.
P.S. I should do a blog post on irritating questions many Deafies get such as, "Do you read lips?" and "Why don't you have a cochlear implant?"