The degree of worry and uncertainty faced by individuals in their daily lives is, at the start of the 21st century, higher than at any other time in the history of human civilization. Many people face insecurity about their jobs and income: Will I be the next person to be laid-off? How will I find a summer job? How can I make enough to pay the bills?
Uncertainty is also a feature of personal relationships as well: Does she really like me? Will my marriage last? Will the children turn out OK? More general anxieties about the future also abound: Will humans destroy the ecological balance of the planet?
People who stutter face not only the normal uncertainties, but also two additional ones. First, people who stutter worry about whether the sounds and words they are saying will be fluent, rather than blocked, repeated and uncontrolled. Those who stutter, like me, worry about being able to say what they mean clearly and in a stress free manner, rather than having to struggle and fight to get the words out.
Second, people who stutter worry about the feelings and reactions of their listeners toward the stuttering behaviour. We want our listeners to pay attention to the words and the meanings behind these rather than to the jerking of the jaw, the blinking eye lids, the repetitions, and the rest of what makes up stuttering behaviour. We want our listeners to view us as normal speakers who don't violate the rules of communication. But we suspect that, in fact, our listeners view us as somewhat odd or different. As a result we fret about what the other person is thinking while we are talking and stuttering.
No wonder it's sometimes tough to be a person who stutters!
Of course, we don't always worry about whether we will stutter. Some days -- the good days -- the words come smoothly and we know for certain that our speech will be fine. Other days, though, each utterance is accompanied by a prayer asking for divine intervention so that at least a single word in each sentence might be fluent.
Fortunately, as we get older there are more good days and fewer bad days. As well as we age, we get to have more control over our lives. For instance, I now ask my students and colleagues to use e-mail as much as possible to reach me. As a result, the number of unexpected telephone calls I receive, from people I don't know very well, has decreased.
It is important to realize that taking a measure of control over speaking situations is not copping out or avoiding responsibility. Someone who is diabetic or has allergies is not copping out by asking a hostess for particular foods. Certainly, a recovering alcoholic is not cowardly when stating to his host that he cannot drink champagne with others during the toast.
Indeed, all people seek to minimize, within reason, those situations that give them stress and maximize those situations that provide pleasure. People who stutter are as entitled as are others with a disability to seek to increase the control they have over their lives, including control over speaking situations. Of course, refusing to answer the telephone altogether for long periods of time is probably not at all wise or healthy.
People who stutter never know what our listeners are thinking when we stutter. Is the other person feeling pity, fear, embarrassment, pleasure, or whatever? The reality is that we can really never know, for even if we ask (and this is pretty rare) we don't know if we are being told the truth.
Because we cannot ever find out, we quite rightly become more worried. Once sufficiently worried we tend to reach the most pessimistic conclusion. We come to believe that, "The teacher must think I'm an idiot", or "My colleagues must think I don't know enough', and "He'll never know how I feel about him."
Moreover, because we cannot ever know the feelings and attitudes of others, we might start to blame the fact that we stutter for all kinds of things that happen in our lives. Like, "I'm sure I didn't get the job because I stutter," and "She doesn't want to go out on a date with me because she's embarrassed by my stuttering." These conclusions may be accurate or they may be utterly erroneous. We just dont know.
For a long time I contemplated if there was any way to find out what my listeners thought about my speech and stuttering. Eventually, I came up with a plan! I got an associate of mine, an accomplice, to send a confidential survey to my family, friends and colleagues asking them (among other things) to rate my speech. In this way my listeners would be honest, as they would be sharing their views not with me, but with a third party.
The results of my associate's survey are that the important people in my life, such as my family, friends and colleagues rated my speech as being much more fluent than I did. Specifically, I thought the fluency of my speech -- on a scale of 1 (entirely normal) to 9 (entirely abnormal) -- was usually about a 5. However, my family, friends and others disagreed! They rated my speech about a 3; that is, as much more normal than I did.
In fact, some people rated my speech as being entirely normal. The survey was anonymous so I cannot find out who those people are. However, the results were unmistakable: my perceptions about my level of fluency are not shared by others.
This was great news and I started to worry less about what other people thought. I learned that I was attributing far more negative attitudes to my listeners than they actually held. In others words, I was being much harder on myself than they were.
What I did next was to conduct a similar survey of six people who stutter. These were all people who rated their own stuttering as moderate or severe. The six people ranged in age from 18 to 56 years, with three being male and three female. All had had professional speech therapy at different times in their lives.
These six people who stutter gave me the names of their closest family members, friends and colleagues. Then I wrote to all the family members, friends and colleagues, more that a 150 people, and asked them (among other things) to rate the speech of the one person who stutters whom they know.
I found the same result as I had previously discovered about myself. The six people who stutter thought their speech was pretty abnormal (around 6 on the scale), while most their listeners thought it was much more normal, around 3 or 4. In fact, a number of the family, friends and colleagues thought the speech of the person who stuttered was normal, ranking it as 1 or 2 on the scale.
This made me feel even better, because I had evidence that other people who stutter were, like me, also being harder on themselves than were their listeners. The results of the research provide strong evidence that the perceptions that people who stutter have about their degree of fluency is not shared by their listeners.
Of course, you might say that since I studied only family, friends and colleagues, it is to be expected that these groups of people will have fairly "generous" feelings and attitudes toward people who stutter. You might say, "What about the persons at the counter when I can't place my order? I'm sure they don't think my speech is normal. They would certainly rate my speech as extremely abnormal!"
This may be so, but it might actually not be case. Again, there is no way to know for each specific situation. In any case, the people whose feelings and attitudes matter to me are those of my family, friends and colleagues. The strangers at the counter are not worth worrying too much about, especially given all the other worries one already has.
Think about whether you remember if the waiter who served you yesterday limped, wore a hearing aid, or was somehow different or disabled. You probably cannot remember. At best, you'll remember whether the service was good or not. In the same way, no matter how badly we might stutter when ordering our burger and fries, it is unlikely that the server will remember this behaviour for more than a few seconds.
In fact, what we remember about other people is not their disability, but rather whether they are kind and caring, and give us what we've asking for (like that burger and fries). In the same way, the people who come into contact with individuals who stutter are little interested in whether we stutter, but much more concerned about whether we are considerate, loving and loyal (and get that burger for them!). In my case, my students care much more that I help them to understand the course material and hand back assignments quickly, than about whether I stutter while giving a lecture. My partner has little interest in how much I stutter, but cares deeply about how ethical I am, how I treat her family and friends, and how much I love her.
The reality is that everyone in the world has his, or her, own worries. Some people are addicted (to cigarettes, alcohol, whatever), others struggle with managing their weight, others still with events that took place in the past, and many must deal with much more severe disabilities and chronic conditions than stuttering. Given the multitude of worries that every person has, it seems logical that no one really wants to start worrying about someone else's stuttering.
I titled this paper, "The 25% Improvement" not because my new knowledge caused my stuttering to become better by a quarter. Rather, what I learned made me realize that in the eyes -- and ears -- of my listeners, my speech has always been about 25% better than in my own head. I also learned that this applies to other people who stutter as well.
Do I still worry about whether I'll be speaking fluently tomorrow? Sure I do! But I also worry about the bills to be paid, the birthday card I forgot the write, the increase in global temperatures and everything else.
Do I still worry about what others think when I stutter? Sure I do! But I worry a lot less because although stuttering is a big deal to me, it is only of small interest to my listeners. In fact, during the odd time (between thinking about their own worries) when they do consider my stuttering, they tend to believe that my speech is relatively normal.
Why then should I spend so much time worrying about my stuttering, when no one else is worrying about it?
For readers interested in published results of some my academic research on the topic of this paper, the following are may be helpful:
Klassen, Thomas R. 2001. "Perceptions of People Who Stutter: Re-assessing the Negative Stereotype," Perceptual and Motor Skills, 92: 551-559.
Klassen, Thomas R. 2001. "The complexity of attitudes toward people who stutter," Proceedings of the Third World Congress on Fluency Disorders. Nijmegen, Netherlands: Nijmegen University Press, 605-609.
Klassen, Thomas R. 1995. "The Challenge of Regaining and Maintaining Fluency: A Socio-Psychological View," Journal of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology, 19(2): 97-102.
For readers interested in a non-academic article, the following link may be helpful: