By John C. Harrison
Program Director, National Stuttering Project

A friend once offered a really useful suggestion. "Would you like to control the way other people perceive you?" he asked. I'm a sucker for this kind of question. "It's simple," he went on. "Just act the way you want to be seen. People won't know whether that's the real you or the "act-as-if" you. Most of us never bother to look beyond the obvious. So we'll take at face value whatever you give us." That rule certainly held up at the last National Stuttering Project Annual Convention. People who had never before spoken before a large a group marched up to the microphone, and after announcing that they were scared to death, proceeded to present themselves as if they'd been talking to audiences for years. I would have voted any of them into office. Thinking about "acting as if," recalls an amusing incident that happened to me 29 years ago. It was a year after I had graduated from college, and I was living with my buddy, Don, in an apartment on West 84th Street in New York City. Don and I had been to high school together. He was outgoing, a good athlete with craggy features and a rugged charm. He was my oldest friend, and we'd spent many fun times together. But one thing about Don used to really get to me. He was totally unselfconscious. He simply had no awareness or concern about what others thought. How different we were in that respect. I'd grown up with a stuttering problem and was always supersensitive to what I imagined people were thinking. Don had the annoying habit of walking around the apartment naked with the shades up. I was constantly yelling at him about the neighbors, but he wouldn't care, and finally I'd give up and just pull down the shades. Despite our different personalities, however, we got along famously. One Friday evening about 6:30 I was in the living room giving the carpet a once over with the vacuum cleaner. The place was a mess, and we were expecting company. As usual, I was late and still in my underwear. The door bell rang. Don went to the door. Damn! I still had to clean up a week's worth of cigarette ashes from around the couch, so I kept going, figuring that Don would hold them off for a moment while I finished. Once again, I had overestimated Don's social consciousness. "C'mon in," said Don. I can still see Linda as she looked over Don's shoulder toward me. I knew Linda from high school; she lived down the street from my folks on Long Island. She was really spiffed up for the evening. Smart cocktail dress; pearls. Hell, they were all dressed to the teeth. This wasn't some small burg. This was New York City on a Friday night and they were smart- looking city people ready for a night on the town and they were walking into the living room where I was vacuuming and I was in my underwear and it wasn't a dream, IT WAS REALLY HAPPENING! As they slowly and awkwardly entered the room, I made a decision. It was probably the fastest decision I've ever made, because I didn't have more than a split second to weigh the alternatives. Which were (1) running out of the room and looking like a fool, (2) walking out of the room and looking like a fool, (3) apologizing and not only looking like a fool but feeling very self-conscious and put down like I did when I stuttered or (4) staying right where I was. I stayed right where I was. "Oh hi," I said in my most off-handed manner, acting like this was a daily occurrence. I continued on with the vacuuming. Not only did I do the area around the couch, I even went back and vacuumed under the table again. "Be outa here in a second," I said. I noticed they were looking at me curiously, as though I were some kind of exhibit. "How was the traffic coming over here?" I asked. (At that moment I was as interested in the traffic as I was in the price of ant farms in Nigeria.) "Fine," someone said. "Not too bad." My jockey shorts were certainly a striking contrast to what the other men in the room were wearing. They all had on smart blue suits. And vests. "I'm running a little late." I acknowledged (as if the fact were not already apparent.) Very gradually and with supreme self-control I vacuumed my way a square inch at a time into the hallway. "I'm just about done," I called back. "Gimme about five minutes." Centuries passed while I vacuumed my way down the hall and slowly turned the corner at about four inches an hour. I can't remember when, before or since, I've exhibited this level of restraint. Then, finally, I was free. I was free. I was mortified. And I wanted to crawl into a hole. But my guests didn't know because I was so matter of fact and up front about what had happened. I was damned if I was going to let my embarrassment run me. I dressed quickly, and ten minutes later I was back in the living room pouring drinks. Later, I heard that one of the girls was upset at my impropriety. She figured this "beatnik behavior" was my usual life style. (I could live with that.) However, since I apparently was not embarrassed, neither were they, and after a few jokes about "dressing for the occasion" the incident passed without further comment. I never forgot that night. (Who could!) Nor, I might add, did I forget the lesson it taught me: "People relate to you the way you relate to you." That's particularly true of stuttering. If you're uncomfortable, look away, shuffle your feet, get panicky, the people you're talking to will pick up on your feelings and feel uncomfortable, too. But if you're straightforward, up front, maintain eye contact, and look like you want to be where you are (even if you're vacuuming in your underwear), your listeners aren't likely to be put off by your disfluency. Surprisingly, most people don't really know what they should be feeling, so they look around for cues. Filmmakers understand this. When the thug draws a gun, the camera always cuts away to show how someone else is reacting. Does the bystander look worried? Oh-oh. Here's trouble, and our pulse quickens. But now the director cuts to a close-up of the cop. Look! It's Sylvester Stallone. He's Cobra. He's cool. He knows something we don't know. We begin to relax. What the filmmaker is really doing is programming how he wants us to react. A couple of years ago during an acting class, I had a brand new opportunity to see this principle in action. But first, a little background. As a student in high school I didn't know which I was more afraid of: stuttering (speech block) or going blank in front of the class (memory block). Even now, when I get the least bit uncomfortable, my memory for names, facts, etc. simply leaves town. Once I even forgot the name of my favorite aunt at a family get-together, an incident she still kids me about. However, after years of Dale Carnegie, Toastmasters, and especially impromptu speaking at NSP meetings, I felt confident enough to tackle this fear head on. So I signed up for acting school. We now advance midway through my first course: "Acting for TV." (Nothing like starting off with something easy, right?) It's 11 o'clock at the end of a long evening. I'm in front of 22 fellow students. Plus the teacher. Plus the guy who's operating the TV camera. I'm doing a monologue, which is the hardest kind of exercise, because I'm up there all alone. There's no other actor to play off of. It's a scene from "Death of a Salesman", and I'm acting the part of Willy Loman. The teacher counts down. "," and gives me the sign. The red eye on the TV camera starts blinking. I begin. Nothing feels right; I can't lose my self-conscious. And then, 20 seconds into the scene, I go totally blank. My worst fear has been realized. The teacher had told us that when you forget a line, you should stay in character and see if you can pick it up again. So, continuing to act as Willy Loman, I hem, I haw, I ad lib, I fake it. Nothing works. My mind has totally closed down. Finally, sometime between 30 seconds and 30 years, I say "cut." There I am "in my underwear" again, feeling mortified, with everyone looking on. "Dammit," I say in a loud voice. "For 45 years I've been waiting for this to happen. And it just did." And I laugh. And then everyone laughs. This breaks the tension. I begin again and get through the scene. I'm not great. But I've survived my worse fear. What's more, the people in the room are supporting me. In recalling the incident, I'm aware it was a turning point. It would have been easy to put up a wall. I could have allowed the embarrassment to drive me from the class. But I didn't. By publicly acknowledging my lapse of memory, and then laughing at myself, I told the audience exactly how I wanted them to react. And what do you know...they followed my instructions to the letter.