Last week Twitter bud Ryan Knot sent me this video. In it, TED speaker Sharon Emery talks about the disabled listener and how the reaction of a fluent speaker (I like to call them “show offs” ;)) can impact a stutterer’s speech and the size of our voice, without the other person ever realizing it.
If you don’t stutter, you probably just winced your way through that. If you are a Person Who Stutters (PWS), you giggled. Because you know. There’s a lot I could and would like to say regarding that video, but I thought I’d start with this:
I have no interest in playing the role of The Stuttering Friend in the Lifetime movie of your life. And I’ll stop talking to you if you try and make me. 🙂
I’m told often that I’m “brave” or “courageous” because I speak in spite of disfluency. To me that’s not bravery. Brave is my father learning to walk on two prosthetic legs at the age of 65. That’s pretty gutsy. I’m just using the voice that I have. Same as you. There’s not really a livable alternative if you think about it.
I think that’s one common misconception that people have about stuttering. The idea that because I speak differently that it’s some great feat that I do or that I surely must view myself as disabled. I don’t, I never have, and I’d kick myself if I did. I don’t need fluent speech; I need you to listen to me.
And that tends to be difficult for some fluent speakers. It’s not your fault. You probably don’t even realize that you’re staring at the floor instead of me when I speak, it just happened. Because you were uncomfortable. Or you weren’t sure what was right or wrong to do. It’s a natural reaction. I get that. And it’s okay. You shouldn’t feel badly about it.
Lots of people in my life have commented that they wish I would have told them how to respond sooner. That, perhaps, some tips would have come in handy so they wouldn’t have embarrassed themselves. It’s not something I would have ever thought to do but…okay. Below are some rules for dealing with a stutterer. I hope it helps.
Rule 1: Please don’t finish my sentence: I can’t imagine what it feels like to be you. What it must feel like to watch someone struggle to finish a word, to gasp for air, and to not be able to do anything to help them. Finishing my sentence must feel like the most humane thing in the world to do. But I need you to let me do it. You finishing my thought reinforces the idea that I need you to help me speak. That I don’t have my own voice. I do. And it’s this one. Let me use it.
Also, if you try and guess my thought and get it wrong then we have to start over. You probably have dinner plans you’d like to make.
Rule 2: Eye contact is crucial: Without sounding like your father – look at me when I’m talking to you. I know it’s difficult. I know it may be uncomfortable. But I need you to. It tells me you’re listening, that you haven’t gotten bored, and that you remember I’m still standing here. I’m putting up a lot of energy trying to get these words out. Just give me a sign you’re tuned in. Otherwise I may start stuttering harder on purpose to keep you here. Okay, I won’t really do that.
Rule 3: I stutter; I’m not deaf or dumb: You don’t need to yell or draw out your words. My hearing is fine. We don’t need to both make spectacles of ourselves, k?
Rule 4: If you didn’t understand me, don’t pretend you did: I realize that sometimes when I stutter on a word, it may become harder for you to understand what I just said. This is normal and it’s not your fault. It’s not even my fault. It’s just one of those things. If you didn’t understand me, please ask me to repeat it. Do not pretend that you did. Not only is it kind of rude to pretend we’re having a conversation we’re not, it reduces the odds that you’ll ask me the same questions five minutes later. Because then I’ll really know you didn’t understand me. Awkward!
Rule 5: Don’t tell me to “relax” or “take a breath”: My parents had a family friend who would put his hand over my mouth when I stuttered and advise me to take a breath. No. I’m serious. He’d even take an exaggerated breath first allowing me to mimic him in case I had forgotten how, in fact, I was supposed to breathe. He doesn’t come to the house much anymore.
Rule 6: Don’t offer a disclaimer about me: An old friend would offer a disclaimer to people before they met me. For example, if she knew I was about to meet someone I hadn’t met before, she’d drop them a line or give them a call to let them know that “Lisa stutters…” Again, completely well-intentioned, but also kind of asinine if you think about it. Also doesn’t say too much about the people you hang out with if they need to be warned not to stone me on sight.
Rule 7: Have a question about my stuttering? Ask: This stutter? This is my entire life. I mean, the stutter isn’t, but funny situations like this are. If you have a question or want to know something – just ask. You have my word I will not break out in tears, I will not call you rude and I will not walk away. It actually empowers me when I get to talk about it and open up about what my life is like. Because while it’s different, I like who it’s made me and I have some AWESOME stories about getting hung up on, people thinking I was shivering, and interesting encounters with drunks at bars. I’d love to tell you about them so you can laugh too. Preferably over a beer.
The TL:DR version of what’s above is pretty simple: Focus on what I’m saying, not how I’m saying it. And if you want to know something – ask. In return, I promise to give you the same respect which means speaking to you instead of at your giant nose/zit/weird eye/etc. It’s the least I can do.