Neutral Conversation Topics for Interpreters in the Waiting Room

Dec 21, 2021 | Interpreter Education

by: Brooke LaTurno, EIPA 3.8 - Interpreter Coordinator

There are everyday instances during our work as interpreters when we need to make neutral conversation with clients. Depending on your background and personality, it may feel tricky at first to determine (in the moment) what kind of casual conversation topics are appropriate while on the job. This may be especially true for young professionals who do not have previous work experience, for those who are just starting out in their interpreting career, or for shy interpreters who may feel nervous in social interactions.

Given our professional role and responsibilities, it is important to be aware of topics that are acceptable to discuss while working and know how to navigate a conversation if it veers into an inappropriate direction. If this is something that you struggle with, do not worry! It will get easier over time, the more practical experiences you have that allow you to become comfortable with this aspect of our work.

Below is a list of neutral conversation topics to help you brainstorm about the kind of conversation you might make while on the job, maintaining professionalism. I hope these ideas are helpful to you when chatting with hearing/Deaf client(s) or during a language assessment.

  • Weather

“Wow, what a beautiful day!”

“Oh, it’s really coming down out there, I’m glad I brought an umbrella.”

  • Changing seasons

“It’s nice to have some cooler weather after such a hot summer. Are you looking forward to the winter?”

“Thank goodness hurricane season is over!”

  • Landmarks nearby

“I passed by Veterans Park on the way here, and realized I’ve never visited that one. It looks like a beautiful place to spend the day, with all those trees and trails.”

“Isn’t this office close to the local Deaf Club?”

  • Your surroundings

“What colorful artwork! I appreciate seeing art that celebrates our local wildlife.”

“How lovely that they have all these windows to allow natural light into this room throughout the day!”

“I saw four turtles in the pond outside on my walk to the building. That seems like a popular place to sit.”

  • Your professional background, if asked

“I started learning American Sign Language X years ago because…”

“I was doing more VRS work in the past, but now I am really enjoying working in the community again.”

  • Traffic/parking in the area

“These offices seem to be very busy today, the parking lot was packed!”

“I noticed many more drivers on the southbound highway, but it was free and clear on the northbound.”

“I see they are almost done with construction on the new medical building in this plaza.”
Most of the topics listed above would make for viable conversation starters no matter whether you are working with someone who you have known for years, or someone who you are just meeting for the first time. Sometimes the client(s) may bring up a topic they would like to discuss. In those cases, you can focus on being an active ‘listener.’

Keep in mind that there are some situations in which it is entirely appropriate not to converse with the client. Imagine if you are working in a hospital setting – if you are interpreting for a patient, they will likely need rest as a crucial part of their recovery. Additionally, it can be exhausting to watch an interpreter for extended periods of time. If you have already done a language assessment, and/or are familiar with the client based on prior interactions, it may be preferable for everyone involved to have a peaceful break during downtime.

As interpreters, our professional relationships are so important. The quality of the rapport and trust we have built with the clients we work with has a huge impact on whether or not we are able to do our work well. It is natural to want to connect with the people who we meet through our work. Given the unique position we have in the lives of our clients, along with the responsibilities of confidentiality and impartiality that are inherent to our role as interpreters, how do we earn the trust of everyone involved?

The book So You Want to be An Interpreter? cites Lou Fant “renowned interpreter and pioneer in the field” as noting that “standards of conduct elicit trust from consumers toward interpreters. [emphasis added]” (Humphrey & Alcorn, 302) While thinking about standards of conduct, it is natural to reflect on verbiage from the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct (CPC) for guidance on how to practice professional discretion.
Some of the applicable tenets are as follows:

2.5 Refrain from providing counsel, advice, or personal opinions.

2.6 Judiciously provide information or referral regarding available interpreting or community resources without infringing upon consumers’ rights.

4.2 Approach consumers with a professional demeanor at all times.
With those tenets in mind, below are some examples of topics which should not be discussed during work:

  • Religous beleifs
  • Medical history/health
  • Politics
  • Finances
  • Personal relationships
  • Gossip

If you are asked about a personal or sensitive topic while on an assignment, you may want to cite the CPC or your agency’s policies to explain why you are not comfortable engaging in conversation about that particular subject. In general, our personal lives should be kept confidential as part of our professional distance.

Remember that our choices, behavior, and interactions while on assignments set precedents and create expectations that will impact every future interpreter who works in that setting or with those individuals. As Janice Humphrey and Bob Alcorn describe at the beginning of Chapter 12 of their book So You Want to be An Interpreter?, an interpreter’s sense of appropriate responses to ethical dilemmas will grow and change throughout their career, and it is necessary to engage in discussion with our peers to gain further insight and competence as it relates to this delicate topic. (Humphrey & Alcorn, 299)

Do you have any “go-to” conversation topics that you use while on assignment? Please let us know in the comments section below.

References:

Humphrey, J. H., & Alcorn, B. (2007). So You want to be An Interpreter?: An Introduction to Sign Language Interpreting (4th ed.). H & H Publishing Co, Inc.

RID. NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct. https://rid.org/ethics/code-of-professional-conduct/. Retrieved December 19, 2021, from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-_HBAap35D1R1MwYk9hTUpuc3M/view?resourcekey=0-iOY8FKhinQcukf4Uv8wNjA

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