Correction to This Article
This article about speed dating at Gallaudet University misstated the college's enrollment. The college has fewer than 1,200 undergraduates and a total enrollment, including graduate students, of about 1,800.

Hearts, hands find no need for speech

A couple gets acquainted at a speed-dating night at Gallaudet University in Washington. The rules allowed no speaking, which was fine because American Sign Language dominates nonwritten communication at the school - but signing made it easier for others to eavesdrop.
A couple gets acquainted at a speed-dating night at Gallaudet University in Washington. The rules allowed no speaking, which was fine because American Sign Language dominates nonwritten communication at the school - but signing made it easier for others to eavesdrop. (Photos By Bill O'leary)
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By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010

The ground rules at a Gallaudet University speed-dating night were simple: Five minutes with each partner. When time is up, everyone switches seats. Keep the conversations G-rated. And no talking allowed. The last rule was the easiest to follow, since Gallaudet is one of the few colleges in the world where American Sign Language dominates all nonwritten communication.

"Sooo . . ." signed organizer Aneesah Silvels, a graduate student, who used exaggerated arm movements for emphasis. "It is time to start."

With a flurry of hand movements, about two dozen speed daters started to get to know one another on a recent Friday night as they sat in folding chairs arranged in two concentric circles in the campus student center.

Most were deaf Gallaudet students, although a few hearing students from Towson University who know sign language also attended. There were more women than men, making matchups slightly difficult.

The questions would have been familiar to anyone who has been on a first date: Where are you from? What are you studying? Where do you live? What do you do for fun? What are your favorite restaurants?

But instead of a quiet, intimate conversation that could be overheard only by those sitting close by, it was easy for anyone who knows sign language to eavesdrop. Organizers had to keep shooing away spectators who gathered to watch.

That constant shortage of conversational privacy makes dating on the campus difficult - especially in such a small, tight-knit college community, which has about 2,000 undergraduates and 500 grad students.

Everyone always seems to know everything about everyone else, several students said.

"At a large university, you could have a one-night stand, and no one would know," signed Emmanuel Felix, a sophomore from San Diego who is studying accounting. "Here at Gallaudet, if you have a one-night stand, everyone knows."

Speed dating has gained popularity - and cultural cachet - in the past decade. It gives singles an opportunity to gather and meet several potential dates at one time, spending a few minutes with each. The subject came up during an episode of "Sex and the City." And the title character of the show "Frasier" once deemed it "all the stress and humiliation of a blind date, times 12."

Spreading the word

Gallaudet-style speed dating was part of a class project for Silvels, who is studying deaf education. Each student in one of her graduate courses had to come up with a project that would explain Gallaudet to the Washington community or bring together different groups on campus.

"I have friends who have done speed dating and really liked it," said Silvels, who is in her late 20s. "I thought this would be really fun because it's very adult-like."


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