Over the last twelve months, I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking, particularly when it comes to my poetry. This experience has really opened my eyes to how others (and even how I) see my stutter and interact with it.
I’ve written these reflections into a blog post, outlining things that people say or do that make me uncomfortable or even sometimes mad.
Before you read on, it’s important to note that every person who stutters may deal with their stutter in different ways and that this blog post is not meant to be an attack on anyone, it is merely a way for me to share my own thoughts and experiences.
Why do I stutter?
This is a very personal question and it’s one I don’t feel completely comfortable answering. However, it is asked a lot (most recently by my four-year-old cousin) so it would be remiss of me not to address it. To put it simply – a.k.a., the explanation I gave to my cousin – the part of my brain that handles speech works differently to a lot of other people’s.
I’m sure this is an overgeneralised explanation and I used an apple as a prop, but hey, he was four and seemed to understand. If you want to know more about what causes people to stutter, I’d suggest asking a professional (a speech therapist, for instance.)
What happens when I meet another person who stutters:
I often feel compelled to let them know of my own stutter immediately so that they don’t think I’m mocking them. Then, we usually dive right into a conversation. Sometimes, but not always, we talk about how we deal with our respective stutters and we might swap stories.
Interestingly for me, my own stutter becomes more unmanageable when I speak to another person who stutters. I think, personally, it’s because I grow more comfortable knowing there is another person who understands the struggle, so I don’t feel the need to focus everything on the techniques I use to manage my stutter.
Did I go to speech therapy?
Don’t interrupt me and/or finish my sentences.
Recently, I approached a person after a panel they were on. I’d met this person before, but they didn’t recognise me. Not an issue, I just began reintroducing myself. As I was pushing out the second syllable of my first name, this person chimed in, “Oh yes, we have met before, I remember now.”
This situation is one that happens constantly. I’ve begun seeing the funny side to this, often laughing it off with friends and colleagues with an “At least they remembered me!” Truth be told, I often leave these conversations feeling as though my stutter is my base identifier. Like when people single me out as the ‘Aboriginal poet’ at a gig or in an author bio. I don’t want to be known as the ‘stuttering poet’. My stutter is part of me, as is my Aboriginality, but that’s not all I am. Instances such as the above fuel thoughts like “Do people really enjoy my work, or are they only interested in the work because of the stutter.” While I’m confident it is the latter, anxiety and self-doubt can make you think wonderfully debilitating thoughts.
This is only one example of being interrupted. The most common is when people interrupt me to finish my sentences. This may be different for other people with stutters, but this irks me to no end. When somebody finishes my sentence for me, all I hear is their impatience and frustration at having to wait for me to finish what I’m saying.
Now, there are exceptions to this. I have a friend who, when we go out, asks if I would like her to order for me or to speak on my behalf. If I say yes, she does so, and I am immensely grateful. If I say no, she steps aside and is patient as I stumble my way through my coffee order. Likewise, I’ve had conversations with friends where they have asked me if or when it would be appropriate it for them to interject and help me out with a word if they see that I’m struggling.
The key takeaway from this is consent. Ask before you interrupt someone or interject on their behalf. Be mindful that sometimes the answer is no, and respect that. Understand that what works for one person with a stutter may be different for another person with a stutter.
Down with the unsolicited advice.
This ties into my previous point but I’ve written enough bitter poetry about it, I thought it deserved its own section. (I apologise in advance if this comes off as a bit rant-y. It is.)
Techniques for fluent speech are great tools I use to help manage my stutter. Sometimes, they don’t work. Other times, when I forgo these techniques, it’s because I’m either too tired or too distracted. I need to constantly think and be aware of these techniques as I am talking for them to work effectively, and multi-tasking has never been my strong suit.
Unsolicited advice I commonly receive:
- “Just breathe”
- “Take your time” or “Talk slowly”
- “Think about what you’re saying and then say it”
This advice usually comes from well-meaning people. In fact, almost all the people who say or do the things that I have mentioned in this blog post come from a positive place. I understand that people are curious and are trying to be helpful in their own way. But, unless I am paying you for speech therapy, these comments are not helpful.
What really irks me, though, is that this advice always arrives, usually by strangers, when I am mid-way through a word or a sentence. As I previously mentioned, interrupting or interjecting when I am speaking is not helpful.
Not only does this advice distract me as I try to listen to what the person just said, it comes off as rather pushy or even sarcastic. Because it makes me stop or pause, it also means the talking process is extended as I start my word or sentence all over again.
More often than not, I don’t need a reminder to use techniques for fluent speech. I am very much aware of the fact and I will recalibrate accordingly – in my own time. And, during times when I may need reminding, mid-way through a word or sentence is not the right time to remind me.
“Don’t be nervous.”
Hi, I’m a person with diagnosed anxiety. I can’t not be nervous. It’s a constant state of being. Sorry.
More than that, nervousness or anxiety is not the only reason why I stutter, though many people tend to think that it is. In fact, I can manage my stutter a *little* better when I’m anxious thanks to many years of learning to somewhat manage my anxiety in general. While ‘being nervous’ may factor into the many reasons why I stutter, it’s not the sole cause.
Other, non-anxiety related reasons why my stutter may become unmanageable:
- late at night or when I’m super tired.
- when I’ve consumed alcohol.
- when I’m crying or upset.
- when I’m very excited about a certain topic of conversation.
- the letter W.
“Just sing everything!”
It’s true that I don’t stutter when I sing. People who have known me for a long time know of my love for musicals and road-trip sing-alongs.
But here’s the thing: I can’t sing everything I want to say. Firstly, I’m not a great singer. Secondly, do you realise how bizarre it would be seeing a person at a restaurant sing their order? Thirdly, my poor vocal cords!
As much I wish otherwise, my life isn’t a Disney film. Thank you, but this is not advice I plan to take onboard.
Yes, I have seen The King’s Speech.
And no, I don’t stutter when I swear. Once again, maybe not helpful or appropriate advice in public.
“Your stutter is getting better!”
No, it’s not. Somedays, it is more manageable, but what is really happening here is I’m not getting better – you’re becoming more accepting. Comedian, Drew Lynch created a video about this on his YouTube channel.
Ask me to repeat myself.
I went to a house party earlier this year where I only knew one person. Still, I went and mingled and struck up conversations with strangers for the sake of my friend. I left one conversation to get another drink and as I walked away, somebody said, “I didn’t understand a word she just said, did you?” A few other party-goers agreed with this person and I left the party soon after, embarrassed and upset.
If you don’t understand or hear what I say, I encourage you to ask me to repeat myself. It may be a long process, you might think you’re being rude by doing so, but I would much rather have a conversation where you understand what I have just said rather than a conversation where I’m not being heard at all.
To finish off…
For me, having a stutter is frustrating and anxiety-inducing and tiring. I don’t want to stutter, I just do. It probably won’t ‘go away’ any time soon and I’ve grown more confident in that fact. I’ve realised that all I can do is help others understand this part of me.
This blog post didn’t cover everything pertaining to my stutter, only the most common experiences I face on a day-to-day or weekly basis.
I understand that for many, learning how to interact with people who stutter can be a lengthy process. I hope that when you next interact to me, or somebody else who stutters, that you will be more aware of what you might say or do to make the experience as comfortable as you can for everyone involved.