This is something I’d bet every single deaf person has been told (and continues to be told) by a hearing person – likely a friend, partner, or family member.
For them – it’s a simple request. We are being louder than what is socially accepted according to hearing culture so they feel a responsibility to tell us to turn the volume down. For us – or at least me, it’s a packed request that brings up feelings of shame, frustration, and anger.
Let’s think it like this. My volume is “too high” because I’m clearly having a great time. I’m laughing. I’m discussing something with passion. I’m expressing joy. And the first thing I’m told is to be more quiet? That alone is kind of messed up no?
Beside that – I have a complicated relationship with sound. I cannot hear it. I can create it. I cannot really control it much upon request. People try to control sounds I make. Shape it. Transform it. Ask me to create sound over and over and look at me with veiled disappointment because I’m unable to train my tongue and throat to conform. I’m taken out of my classroom to go into a room and repeat saying the alphabet. To make boat and train noises. To feel the throat. To feel the movement of the breath. I do this week by week until I decide to quit speech therapy in third grade.
It wasn’t even only hearing people. My deaf grandma would often do her own version of speech therapy with me. Desperate to help me learn how to speak better. She grew up in the dark ages of Deaf Education where hearing educators banned sign language (look up Milan 1880). Deaf students were forced to stop signing and only speak – this was enforced by punishment which came in the form of hands being tied together, hands being slapped by rulers, publicly shamed, etc. It was abnormal and shameful to be a signer. During this time – students would teach each other how to sign in secret. Grandma knew how to sign in Maritime Sign Language because of this but her relationship with her deafness was complex at best. This strange blend of collective pride, pain, and shame. One that only Deaf people of her generation can fully understand.
With that in consideration – it’s understandable why this was so important to her. Many days were spent where I was forced to read children books out loud – forming garbled word after another – while my grandma strained to hear me with her heavy duty hearing aids. My throat would become so dry and hoarse but I was told to keep going as my sister watched with pity. At the end, grandma would nod as if I did a good job but I could see it in her face – I was not doing it right. I never could. She had no choice but to eventually accept that I was sadly an “oral failure” – I couldn’t form words well enough.
As a child – I found a lot of joy in creating sound. Or rather, creating vibrations in my body. The deep rumble in my chest. The bubbly growl in my throat. The tight bounce against the roof of my mouth. I enjoyed experimenting. Both for myself and for others. What heightened my moment of comfort? What kept me entertained? What made others laugh? What drove people nuts? This prolonged subtle vibration that seemed to echo back and forth in my mouth apparently annoys my mom and sister? Awesome. Filing that into my “interesting facts about hearing people” mental storage drawer. But over time – you’re told to stop doing this sound because it’s annoying, that sound because it’s wrong, and all the sounds… and you become quiet. You lose ownership of your sound. It’s no longer yours. Its theirs.
However – as you start getting quiet. People will ask you to make specific sounds. To test you. To fulfill their curiosity. How “bad” is my speech? Can I say this word? Or that word? I recall times where my teachers would attempt to “help” me by making me say a word and correcting me/giving me guidance as to how to make the correct sound… while the entire classroom watched. Keep in mind that I was always the only Deaf student in my class and that I did not at all rely on speech to communicate. There was absolutely no point in this activity.
Sound became something I’m powerless about and is one of these things that slaps a big “you’re not like us” label on. Best to avoid it at all costs.
Much to my horror – I eventually found out that even when I’m not making sound on purpose, it still happened! One day, I was told I was randomly making a very soft humming sound for absolutely no reason. I mean I was just chilling – being myself and apparently, I’m creating sound. My breathing is making sound! I couldn’t feel the vibration. That revelation made me paranoid. If I don’t know I’m making sound…. then am I making sound all the time? Does this make sound? Does that make sound? Am I marking myself as different all the time?
A fact about me: people are always shocked when I sneeze. Not because it’s loud but because it makes absolutely no sound. This comes from years of paranoia around making sounds to the point where I literally trained myself to not make noise when I sneeze. Nowadays I still don’t make sneezing sounds because I enjoy seeing people being surprised and it doesn’t feel like I’m stifling myself – it feels like a superpower if anything. So I guess some good came out of all this. Ha.
On top of this – you increasingly become aware that hearing people are apparently fascinated about the sounds Deaf people make during sex. Do we sound like animals? All the grunting and weird guttural sounds? I’ve actually had strangers ask me if I make sounds when I have sex. I’ve had people ask my lovers what sort of sounds I make when they have sex with me. It all got to me to the point where I made sure I stayed as quiet as possible during sex. Do not make sounds. Do not.
Biggest message: sound does not belong to me and when I even dare to make sound – it’s weird and wrong.
It took a lot of work to start taking sound back. To allow myself to express joy through laughing without worrying if it’s too loud. To call after my hearing friends even though I know the sounds I make isn’t “right”. To not worry if my lips are smacking too hard. To let myself make whatever sounds I want to express sexual pleasure and to trust that – we are enjoying each other and I’m not being observed like some science experiment. To simply allow myself form whatever sound that feels accurate in that moment. To say no if someone asks me to make a specific sound – I no longer perform for you. My sounds are mine. I create them for me.
So yeah, when I’m told “shhh!” – it’s not a simple request… and don’t be shocked if I sign “no” back to you.