Why are we surprised?

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There is a beautiful scene in the 1994 remake of the Christmas classic “Miracle on 34th Street” in which Kris Kringle is presented with a deaf girl. To everyone’s surprise (including the young girl, Sami, who was deaf in real life), Kris Kringle defies the mother’s expectations and communicates with young Sami in sign language. Actor Richard Attenborough reportedly learned sign language in secret for the scene, which would make young Sami’s reaction a genuine surprise. In reviewing the scene, we see a number of real life dynamics play out before our eyes.

“You don’t have to talk to her — she just wanted to see you.”

One of the first things we see is the mother setting a low expectation for Santa. In context, the mother was probably just trying to be polite, but by setting a low expectation, she went against her natural desire for her child to be respected and valued. By contrast, Kris Kringle showed her it was not unreasonable for Santa to communicate with Sami in her own language.

“What’s your name?”

After demonstrating his ability to communicate with Sami, Santa immediately seeks a connection with her and asks her name. Sami responds in her own language, smiling with delight because Santa recognized her desire to be known. This created an immediate connection between them that had not existed even a moment earlier.

“Do you know Jingle Bells?”

The immediate connection created through mutual communication is deepened by meeting a second and third desire. Despite her communicative differences, Sami still desired to be related to. By singing “Jingle Bells” together, Santa uses their connection to create equality and then caps it off by praising Sami for a job well done. In less than a minute’s time, they went from strangers to friends.

“What would you like for Christmas? A doll and a bear! You shall have them!”

Santa used his newfound friendship with Sami to make her feel understood. By communicating with Sami in her language, Santa garnered enough trust for her to share what she wanted for Christmas. Had she not felt understood, then it’s likely Sami would not have bothered telling Santa anything, much less her Christmas wishes (just as we see her being uncommunicative in the very beginning). Children tend to communicate more when they feel understood.

“I wish you a Merry Christmas!”

The entire situation lasts less than two minutes, but so much was exchanged in that brief time. Kris Kringle raised the bar of communicative expectation, he connected with young Sami, he created trust between them, and he got her to communicate her thoughts to him. Everybody deserves to be spoken to with respect, and part of that respect means presuming competency and understanding. Despite the mother’s initial low expectation, her gratitude for Kris Kringle’s respect toward Sami is plain on her face.

In the same way as Santa communicating with the deaf girl was a magical moment, communicating with a symbol speaker in their own symbol system creates new personal connections and depths of understanding. We don’t need “Christmas magic” to give the same respect and connection to symbol speakers as Santa gave to Sami. All we need is to Symbol-It.

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