Here, you will find strategies for living with a congenital stutter – strategies that I have found useful, but take them or leave them.
by E. A. Bourland
Document history: created December 1994 / updated July 2003, January 2006
A stutter adds work to your life: the work of saying things, and the work of calming other people down while you say them. Mine is a “moderately severe” stutter according to one doctor. The bad part of having a stutter is not its effect on me, which over time is slight, but its effect on other people, which sometimes is dramatic. Here, you will find strategies for living with a congenital or a long term stutter – strategies that I have found useful, but take them or leave them.
Don’t conceal your stutter
Well, you have a stutter, and probably, that is that. But when you have something to say, pipe up, and stutter as much as you need to. As you stutter, keep a straight face, do not twitch or do anything goofy, and be forthright and friendly. This requires practice, especially the being friendly part. The more you talk and stutter, the more manageable your stutter will be.
Don’t do it. Once you start to say a word, stick with it. You look funny – the bad kind of funny – when you repeatedly stutter out the first syllable of a word, then shift abruptly to another word that is, at the moment, easier to say. If you shift words you look indecisive or comical. Use correct diction. Substituting slightly incorrect words, for correct words on which you would stutter, convinces people you are weird. Do not use exalted vocabulary, even if “proboscis” comes more easily than “nose”, which it might, but you get the point.
Twitching and wiggling
If you have to wiggle some part of you to get a word out, make it your toe inside your shoe. Do not bob up and down. Do not wiggle your foot, your knee, your butt, or anything else. Some stutterers engage in bodily movements when commencing speech – pushing out words with a twitch or a bob. On that note . . .
Don’t develop behaviors to mitigate or disguise your stutter
Sometimes you will discover behaviors that help you get through a blocked word: clearing your throat, clicking your tongue, whatever. But you look weirder standing there clucking like a chicken and stuttering, than you do just stuttering. Auxiliary behaviors are a difficult aspect of stuttering, because of course you want to be fluent, and these behaviors can make talking a little easier. Probably the behaviors will not be effective all of the time. And their weirdness may soon obscure their utility.
Averting your gaze
Some speech therapists tell stutterers to look people in the face while stuttering, but I say go ahead and avert your eyes if it helps you speak or reduces the listener’s dismay. If you stutter, you own already a propensity to disturb people. Staring at them could put them over the edge. I have caused people to turn tail and walk quickly away, or to puff themselves up and begin making threats. More often, as I speak to people they will fidget, glance around, nervously smile, or turn red, plainly alarmed.
Make a judgment at the beginning of every conversation
Make a judgment at the beginning of every conversation. It might be useful to avert your gaze if you are stuttering badly. Averting your gaze might allow you to focus on the task of talking, and it might put your listeners at ease. Of course, continue speaking, and have your say, and keep using good judgment. Normal conversational social skills always apply. Remember to look a person in the eye when you shake her or his hand. There are times when you should not avert your eyes. When you avert your eyes, you should look at the ground or the horizon or something. Do not look at other people’s bodies. As you look away, go ahead and stutter. As you are closing your last word, calmly meet the listener’s eye again, as though returning a volley.
Watch out for the staredown
Remember that the act of holding your gaze can be construed as a challenge. Do not fall into the trap of a staredown. In graduate school I had a teacher who bridled if she thought I was holding my gaze for more than a few respectful seconds. A staredown is not worth your time.
Dealing with difficult people
If you are meeting or addressing someone for the first time and he or she starts grinning and cracking up while you are stuttering, just keep speaking. Remain calm and serious and say what you mean to say: “Hello, my name is Sam” or “Where’s the electronics department please?” If you crack up along with her or him then you are acquiescing to an humiliation. If you show anger you will look foolish and vulnerable. Keep your cool. If the person is particularly offensive or begins mocking you, again, remain calm and continue speaking. Give the person a chance to recover from her or his lapse and demonstrate better social skills. In any case say what must be said and go on about your business.
Always keep your cool. Never even raise your voice. Be unflappable and mildly amused.
Practice a slight, natural saunter. Not a swagger.
Roger Rabbit, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester the Cat – many cartoon characters have speech impediments because speech impediments enhance their goofiness and box office appeal. Many people, meeting you for the first time, will believe you are mocking them by stuttering – that is, likening them to a cartoon character – or that you are just immature and being silly. That is why it is important to keep a straight face when you meet someone. When you stutter, most people will need the reassurance that your calm and respectful demeanor offers. Greet them pleasantly. Look them in their faces. Smile. Shake hands if appropriate – but don’t leap forward to shake hands. These actions demonstrate character. Don’t twitch or cluck like a chicken. Despite your stutter you are a calm and self-possessed adult.
A few miscellaneous strategies
- Minimize the “ums,” “ahs,” and other interjections. Speak slowly. Stutter if you have to, even if that is constantly. As much as possible, keep your voice and manner calm. Do not care too much about what people think about you.
- On that note, choose your words carefully, before you speak. Who, more than a stutterer, should think before speaking?
- Occasionally stutter on purpose, in a slow, calm-voiced way. This is good practice for developing a useful stutter, that admits disfluency but allows communication.
- Set out each day to speak slowly. Be deliberate in your speech and actions. People admire the trait of deliberateness. If you get off to a good start there is a better chance that the day will be more fluent.
- Use humor to your advantage. There is much that is funny about a stutter. Be careful not to obtain the identity of a wag, since people may view constant attempts at humor as a sign of insecurity.
- An occasional tactic: As you stutter, hold up your finger (the forefinger, not the middle one) as though to say, “Yes, I am having a bit of trouble, just one sec.” This signals to alarmed or hostile listeners that you are not deranged and are not mocking the listeners. In conjunction with eye aversion, this tactic can be particularly effective. It appears as though you have left the conversation momentarily to tend to a problem – which in fact is the case. You can practice these behaviors to make them charming and heartwarming. I would not use the Just One Sec trick too often. Always judge when it is best to apply stratagems like this. When in doubt, do not use them. Doubt indicates inappropriateness. Listen to your instinct.
- Be open to criticism, even criticism that seems harsh. Extract the useful content from the criticism.
- Do I need to remind you to keep a cool head?
What should you do during a bad block?
A block is a part of speech you cannot pronounce due to your stutter. Blocks can be very difficult to break. I have had blocks go on for more than a minute. Some blocks simply will not be broken – there are times when I am physically unable to pronounce a word. If I can think of another appropriate word, I will shift to it. Other times I will take out pen and paper and write the bastard down – only when all else fails and it is imperative that I finish my communication immediately. The only solution to the unbreakable block is to try your best to not get into it in the first place. I wish I could be more helpful here.
I try to not put people, especially people who do not know me well, in the situation of having to watch me stutter for more than, say, ten seconds at a time. A big part of managing a stutter is disarming the spectacle that attends it. Another big part is placing the opinions of others in their appropriate proportion. It is crucial that you appear calm and collected immediately before and immediately after a block, no matter how extended or graphic the block was.
You have to let on to people that this is your everyday behavior, it is normal, and you have got the matter under control. No embarrassed grins, no blushing, no twitching, no withdrawing or sulking. If you are calm, you will calm those around you. A stutter connotes nervousness, fear, insecurity, immaturity. One doctor I know said that a stutter reduces one to the level of a five year old child. It is crucial that you counter this reduction by evincing adult behaviors at every moment: calmness and deliberateness in movement and in speech. If you present yourself as an adult, others will respond in like manner.
How should you handle interruptions?
When you block, people are going to interrupt you, especially in a group of people where conversations commingle. Your speech pauses – and someone begins talking over you. What are you going to do about this?
Start by gathering information. When someone interrupts you, she imparts useful information about herself and about you. She is impatient to articulate her own idea. This response is common and human and you should expect it in people, especially in people from urban cultures talking in a group.
Stand back and assess the content of your speech. Are you saying something worthwhile? Do you deserve the person’s attention? Can you refine the content of your speech to make her want to listen to you?
Seriously, assess as objectively as possible the content of your speech. If it has merit, and some person continues to interrupt you consistently, then you might find it useful to ask the person to let you finish your thought: “Err, hang on a sec, ma’am, I was almost done.” Said with a small genuine smile. Having requested this time, make good use of it. Make it smart and keep it brief.
Alternately, you can try to make a person look foolish at the precise moment when she interrupts you, but this tactic requires timing. You might arch your eyebrows or give up a tiny smile when a person tramples you with her voice. Don’t overdo it. Gauge the amount of irony you should apply to the moment and the correct instant to apply it. As we get later in human history, this particular, subtle tactic has become less effective. Well, what can you do?
Remember, in a conversation, people tend to interrupt each other. It’s natural. Watch and listen to two people talking. As one trails off, the other jumps in, often not waiting for the first speaker to finish. Then the first speaker will jump in as the second is trailing off. This natural exchange has much more of an impact on a stutterer. You must simply accommodate people. No whining and no moping. Remember to stand up for yourself without being self-important or losing your cool. It bears repeating: speak wisely, humorously, and briefly.
Remember that there are many people out there who have been silenced — by patriarchy, by capitalism, by white supremacy, by trauma they might be reliving over and over. People of color; people who don’t have money; people who have been badly used. Even when you’re blocking words very badly, or when nothing is working, or when people are talking over you or smirking at you or saying a dozen things at you, be aware of speakers who have been silenced even more thoroughly than you. Even if they storm at you. Listening is your act of courage, so listen, and use your cool head to help these people.
A few facts about stuttering
- A pill, supplement, or medication will not resolve your stutter. Look, just eat right, get your sleep, get some exercise now and then. You’ll be OK.
- Stuttering affects one percent of the world’s population. About three million Americans stutter.
- Seventy-five to eighty percent of stutterers are male.
- A stutter can have different manifestations, including sustained repetitions of syllables or sounds, or silence while the stutterer tries to get out a word but refrains from articulating sound-repetitions.
- Stutterers do not stutter because they are “nervous.” No one knows for certain the cause of stuttering. Probably stuttering is caused by a number of factors working together, including neurochemical reactions, faulty brain function, and learned responses.
- A stutter can be distressing, to the stutterer, who may feel alienated; to other people, because the world at large is easily taken aback by a stuttering person.
- Stutterers do not stutter because they have “psychological problems,” though, in some cases, psychological treatment can help a person unlearn a pattern of response that results in stuttering.
- Speech therapy can result in fluent speech — for a little while. Many stutterers, after achieving fluent speech, soon reacquire their stutter.
- If you have a congenital stutter, the object of a speech therapy program should not be to get you to speak fluently, but to teach you how to communicate effectively in spite of your stutter.
- Never give in to a smooth-talking marketer with a miracle cure. There is no miracle cure.
- You’re gonna be fine on your own.
The People Filter
A stutter brings out the best, or the worst, in people. When you stutter, you can gauge a person by her or his reaction to you. I encourage you to take advantage of this useful tool. When you meet someone for the first time, and begin stuttering, the person will have some kind of response, and it is important that you take note of this response, because it is an honest one. It is telltale, and there is nothing the person can do about it.
If the person begins giggling and smirking, or steps back in fear, or steps forward in aggression, you know right away to treat this person with caution. You should be serious, slow to speak and move, businesslike, polite. You should sit up straight, face the person directly, and occasionally make eye contact. Show your good breeding. Maybe the person is in an early stage of life and needs to grow up some. (Everyone needs to grow up some, including this writer.) Have faith in the person.
If the person stands patiently while you push out your words, looks you in the face, does not twitch, does not interrupt you, and continues the conversation in a natural way, then she or he is someone you should get to know better.
Filter yourself, too. That is, know yourself. Forget your stutter for a moment and think about the sum of your behaviors. If you are confident and easygoing even in tense situations, your chances of succeeding in the world are improved. If you feel sorry for yourself, your company will be tedious and you will drive people away. If you insist on being called “a person who stutters” rather than “a stutterer” (or the other way), or demand that funny scenes in A Fish Called Wanda be removed because they depict a stutterer as an object of abjection, then you are self-important (that is, small). Do not take your stutter or yourself too seriously. Do not pity yourself. Do not stay outraged. When you see A Fish Called Wanda go ahead and yuk it up. No one is more dull than a zealot. Don’t be needy; rather, be generous.
It gets easier
It really does. As time goes by you will become more proficient at managing your stutter and helping other people communicate with you. You simply will. Practice the strategies I’ve mentioned above (if they are useful to you, and if you’re a lifelong stutterer I think they will be). It does get easier. Hang in there. Get out there in the world. Remember: no whining and no sniffling. Keep your chin up.
These web sites contain resources for stutterers. Some of these sites offer programs of speech therapy. Exercise great caution before committing time and money to a speech therapy program. Inspect a program with a critical and dubious eye. Find out exactly how much time and money the program requires. Ask the clinician if he or she is a member of The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) . Never let anyone lead you to believe that a “cure” for stuttering exists. Never let anyone play up to your anxieties about stuttering, or lure you with comfort.
- The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
- “ASHA is the national professional, scientific, and credentialing association for more than 173,070 members and affiliates who are audiologists, speech-language pathologists, speech, language, and hearing scientists, audiology and speech-language pathology support personnel, and students. Audiologists specialize in preventing and assessing hearing and balance disorders as well as providing audiologic treatment, including hearing aids. Speech-language pathologists identify, assess, and treat speech and language problems, including swallowing disorders.”
- The Canadian Association for People who Stutter (CAPS)
- “The intent of this web site is to provide people who stutter, their family and friends, speech-language pathologists, academics, students and the general public with information on stuttering resources available both in and outside Canada. In addition to providing information on stuttering from international sources, one of the principal mandates of the CAPS web site is to feature Canadian content. To reach a wider spectrum of people, we hope to have both English and French-language content.”
- International Stuttering Association
- “The International Stuttering Association is an informal, not-for-profit, international umbrella association dedicated to close co-operation among independent national and international self-help organizations of people who stutter.”
- The National Stuttering Association
- “Since 1977, membership in the National Stuttering Association has helped thousands achieve career advancements, improved confidence levels, improved speech fluency, an enhanced social life, better family relationships, leadership roles, and much more …”
- Australian Speak Easy Association
- Stichting tot Voorlichting over Stotteren
- (The Dutch Foundation for Education About Stuttering)
- The Stuttering Foundation of America
- “The Stuttering Foundation of America (SFA), the first non-profit, charitable association in the world to concern itself with the prevention and improved treatment of stuttering, has distributed over three million publications to the public and professionals. This web site has information for those who stutter and their families as well as professionals. We invite you to look over our site in the hope that we may be of service.”
- The Stuttering Home Page
- An extensive and helpful resource established by John Harrison of the National Stuttering Association and Judith Kuster, Associate Professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
- Sleep Apnea, Stuttering May Be Linked (headline from Reuters Health, 19 November 2002)
- “Stuttering and a serious form of snoring known as sleep apnea may be linked, and both conditions may be caused by brain damage sustained early in life, US researchers said on Monday.” (Other researchers have questioned the validity of this study. On the other hand, personally and anecdotally, I have severe sleep apnea, treated with a CPAP.)
- Sleep apnoea linked to stuttering and brain damage (New Scientist)
- “People with sleep apnoea are much more likely to have stuttered as children – and early brain damage could explain the link. The new finding represents a shift in understanding of what causes the devastating sleep disorder, the team says.” (Other researchers have questioned the validity of this study too.)
- Useful Wiki article on stuttering (a.k.a. dysphemia).