For the record: I am not a person who stutters.
This week in particular I've been asked this a lot, which I see as a HUGE compliment...but alas it is not the case. When someone asks me this, it often leads to an interesting discussion about the perspective of non-stuttering people on what it's like to stutter.
These discussions sparked me to dig up my graduate school pseudostuttering reflection paper. For the uninitiated, most speech pathology graduate students who take a course on stuttering are given an assignment to go around their community, stutter on purpose, and write about how it feels and how people react. The idea is that speech-pathologists-to-be should experience what it's really like to have something like a stutter.
When I was in graduate school, I knew NOTHING about stuttering (other than what I learned in class). I have no loved ones who stutter. I had a friend from home who stuttered, but since most non-stuttering people are oblivious to stuttering, I never thought about it much. Basically, I was about as ignorant as an SLP student could possibly be about stuttering.
I was really curious, going back now, to see what student-me thought about my first foray ever into the world of stuttering.
And so, here it is! [Sidenote: this blog post was clearly inspired by divine intervention, because the date on this assignment is exactly five years ago, today: October 6, 2010.]
Our group of three pseudostutterers went to eight different locations in Chicago (Roscoe Village/Lakeview area): Starbucks, an independent local bakery, an antique store, a vintage clothing store, a spa, a designer clothing store, a group member’s friends’ business, and a tattoo parlor.
The main concern amongst all three of us was putting on convincing stuttering behaviors. We were certainly nervous about being perceived as stutterers, but we were more nervous about obviously “faking” it and leaving people wondering why we were pretending to stutter. Once we delved into the stuttering and were comfortable with our behaviors, the social anxiety of speaking was definitely stronger, at least for me. I was especially nervous during my first episode, where we visited a group member’s friend who happened to work in the area we were covering. I was prepared to stutter with random strangers, but the “friend of a friend” relationship seemed far more real and I was incredibly nervous about introducing myself and chatting. I was so nervous that I didn’t even say “hi” when we were introduced; I merely nodded and shook his hand and made some barely audible nonspeech grunt of acknowledgment.
We observed a variety of behaviors in the various listeners, although the majority behavior was definitely indifference—most people seemed not to notice or not to care. In a few cases where we were having longer discussions with people, we made a point of telling them afterwards what we were doing and asking what their reaction was. Surprisingly to us, a few people claimed to not notice at all, including the friend-of-a-friend with whom I practiced behaviors. This was surprising, since I felt like I had been painfully obvious and slow with my behaviors. Another person said they didn’t notice, but reasoned that it might be because this individual was a non-native English speaker, and so they felt they were more open and accepting of nonstandard speech behaviors.
We did have a few negative reactions. One employee at the bakery was obviously uncomfortable and removed herself from the conversation as quickly as possible (as evident to the observers). At the spa, even though the actual party our stutterer was interacting with appeared unconcerned, a hair stylist immediately shot a glance at our group member as soon as she started talking and stuttering, in the same way that we tend to stare at “strange” people who have something wrong with them.
Overall, none of us perceived negative reactions or behaviors on the part of our conversational partners when it was our turn to stutter, which surprised us. During my initial episode with the friend’s friend, I felt like he was cutting me off or talking over (even ignoring) me when I tried to make a comment, though he said afterward he didn’t notice my behaviors. We discussed the role of personality and context as well; for example, the proprietor of the vintage clothing store seemed grumpy, but we speculated that it was because the three of us spent a long time in her small store and didn’t purchase much. Similarly, at the tattoo parlor, our stutterer asked if she seemed nervous, and I told her that she seemed more nervous about potentially getting a tattoo than about her speech.
In retrospect, I think our behaviors could have been more exaggerated. I tried very consciously to include repetitions, blocks, prolongations, and obvious revisions in my speech, but the fact that so many people seemed unaware of our behaviors makes me wonder if one needs to be really extreme to notice a difference. We were all surprised and a little bit puzzled by the apparent nonchalance of so many our listeners, but we think our location may have factored into it. We were in a diverse and artistic area of Chicago proper, where independence and unconventionality is valued, so perhaps people in this area are less fazed by not-so-“normal” behaviors than a more conservative, conventional town.
I definitely feel that this experience has given me an appreciation for how easy it is to let other people talk for you, even at a subconscious level. We all found ourselves using more gestures and jumping on opportunities provided by our partners to lessen our speech load. There was one awkward case where a listener tried to complete a sentence for our stutterer, but guessed the wrong thing—and so we all had to wait while the stutterer backtracked from the wrong guess and explained what she really wanted.
I can also appreciate a little more how stuttering can severely impact one’s social personality. I am a friendly, confident person when meeting new people, and in normal circumstances I would have been asking our friend’s friend about his business, what he thinks of the neighborhood, cracking jokes, and other social comments. Knowing I had to stutter made me extremely reluctant to say anything, and for the first several minutes I made no effort to talk or even pay attention to the conversation, using his pet dog as an excuse not to engage with people. It occurred to me afterwards that people who are naturally shy do this sort of thing all the time, but the added component of stuttering made me very sensitive and concerned about what he would think about me if he heard me talk. We also realized as we walked along Belmont that we were avoiding stores with customers, because we only wanted to stutter in places where the employees had nothing else to do but wait for us to finish speaking. If I was a stutterer, I can definitely see myself avoiding shops and businesses during busy hours, just so I have a reduced audience and no pressure to communicate speedily.
I think this experience will make me much more sensitive and careful about telling stutterers they need to “put themselves out there”, “be confident”, and other such exhortations. Of course it’s important to not let stuttering inhibit your lifestyle, but I have a slightly greater understanding now of just how hard it is to take that sort of advice to heart, even if you know that it’s the right and good thing to do. On the more technical side, I did feel by the end that my ability to “naturally” stutter had improved, and I think I’ll be much more comfortable doing it in a clinic context.
At the end of the day, the experience was not so traumatizing or scary as I had thought it would be, I think largely because we noticed how generally accepting and unfazed most people were when interacting with stutterers. At the same time, I noticed both myself and my partners using subtle techniques or plans to make our speaking requirements as minimal as possible. Even when you “know” that it’s not a big deal to the listener, it is still embarrassing as a speaker, and the increase in “positive” reactions did not decrease our discomfort with the situations themselves. I would actually like to try this again with really extreme stuttering behaviors and see if people’s reactions are any different. Of course, by “like” I mean “I think would be valuable,” since those feelings of fear, embarrassment, incompetence and even sometimes stupidity are not something I’m likely to seek out for sake of curiosity.