Liam O’Dell: Are deaf people more empathetic?

Posted on May 23, 2014

Body language and communication experts, along with psychologists, have all stressed the importance of body language and gestures in communicating emotions.
Everyone has a default mind-set that allows them to recognise when a person is happy, and when they are sad (emoticons, among other things, are testament to this). They could be smiling, leaning forward with their head resting on their knuckles to communicate either boredom or interest.
Gestures and facial expressions are read all the time, but what I came to think of was how much attention we pay to them.
People who use sign language , have to rely both on recognising sign gestures as well as the facial expressions of the person signing. The sign itself has meaning, but say when someone is signing the phrase “Well done”, signing this while smiling and having raised eyebrows helps convey the meaning.
With lip-reading, it’s the same. We rely – as much as we can – on what we can hear. Then we read the person’s body language, along with the shape of their lips, to get the phrase that matches.
But since us deaf people in particular have to pay attention to these things, does it make us more empathetic? Do we get used to reading body language and facial expressions more than hearing people do?
I’m no expert, but I suppose the answer comes with the fact that our communication is different. For those who are hearing, those talking mostly focus on what is being said, and eye contact.
There is no particular focus on what the person is trying to say as they are able to hear it. But for those who are deaf, speech is probably not the main factor that we focus on because of our hearing loss.
We all know particular patterns in body language and gestures that communicate different emotions. You could could say that deaf people possess the ability to fully pay attention to these gestures.
For example, you may be talking to a friend who has recently lost a pet. Whilst a hearing person would be listening to the story and structuring their responses on that, we would probably notice that they have tears in their eyes, that their lips are trembling and their hands are shaking.
But I am curious to hear what you think. Do you consider yourself to be more empathetic?
Liam O’Dell is a 17-year old who uses hearing aids in both ears. As well as playing the drums, Liam likes to read and write. You can find out more about Liam over at his blog:, or follow him on Twitter: @lifeofathinker

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