WHY IT'S EASIER TO TALK WHEN NOBODY'S AROUND
by John C. Harrison
Former Program Director, National Stuttering Project
Back in the early 70's I used to commute forty minutes each day from
San Francisco to my job with an advertising agency in Palo Alto. And
every winter we'd get a spate of drizzly days that always threw me into a
dilemma. If you've ever driven through heavy mist, you'll know the
problem. This mist is not a real rain, but it is heavy enough so that
periodically, it's difficult to see through the windshield.
My dilemma was this: should I ride with the wipers on or off. (This
was before they introduced wipers with an "intermittent" setting.)
As usual, I tended to take my cues from what other people were
doing. If their wipers were on, I'd keep mine on. If my wipers were on
and everyone else had theirs off, I'd feel enormous pressure to turn mine
off. And I would.
One winter evening on the way home from work I was wrestling with
just such an issue. A light mist had come up and it was becoming
difficult to see, so I turned on my wipers. I still remember this moment
clearly; racing along US 101 past Candlestick Park and coming up to the
280 turnoff. In fact, I was just approaching the city when a big black
Ford Mustang raced by.
And he had his wipers off.
I found myself becoming very antsy. I went along for a moment or
two, and then before I realized what I was doing, my hand had reached for
the wiper switch and flipped it off. The black car sped off into the
twilight, and I found myself straining to see through the smear that was
building on the windshield.
"Wait a minute!" I said out loud. "WHY DID I DO THIS? I can't see
out of the damn windshield!"
"You know perfectly well why you turned your wipers off," my alter
ego said. "The black Mustang had his wipers off,"
"Well big %*$@# deal, I countered. "Suppose I didn't turn the
wipers off. So what. What would have happened?"
"Well," said my inner voice, "he would have thought you
I could barely make out the black car in the distance. It was just
turning off on Army street. Nobody I knew had ever lived on Army street.
"But I don't know him. He doesn't know me. We'll probably never
meet in this lifetime. And even if I bump into him on the street or at a
party, I find it highly unlikely that he'd suddenly recognize me, break
into a grin, and cry out so all could hear, "I know you! You were the
dummy on Highway 101 who was driving with his windshield wipers on last
December 12th when everyone else's wipers were off."
This would never happen.
So why did I have to turn off my wipers?
Then it struck me. I turned off my wipers because I didn't want to
appear different. I didn't want to seem strange...
It was that way ever since I was a kid. I didn't want talk funny or
do anything that would set me apart from others. I just wanted to be
accepted; I wanted to belong. So I always refrained from doing anything
that would make me stand out.
It was different if I were alone. I could talk to myself in the
mirror or read aloud with never any trouble, but the moment anyone entered
my field of view, my self-awareness kicked in, and I would start judging
myself. How was I doing? Was I okay? Was I doing it right? I was
seeing and evaluating myself through the other person's eyes. And that's
when I would start to block.
In reality, there was no way I could know what the other person was
actually thinking unless I asked. But it would make no difference,
because I'd project onto the other person what I was thinking about
myself. Then I'd react to that projection by holding back.
Did this happen with everyone? Of course not, because not everyone
qualified as a straw man who could reflect back my own feelings. I never
stuttered in the presence of a two-year-old, because I couldn't project my
judgmental self onto a two-year-old. Ditto, my dog. For someone to
trigger my performance fears, that someone had to be old enough or smart
enough so I could cast them as a critic.
How did my self-consciousness get started in the first place? My
guess is, early on I concluded that being loved was dependent on
performing in an acceptable way. As I grew up, I continued to make the
same assumptions, and I projected the image of judge onto anyone who could
qualify in the role -- teachers, bus drivers, storekeepers, you name it.
Why did I do this?
According to transactional analysis, as we grow up, we learn to play
three basic roles -- child, parent and adult. As we move through life,
we flip in and out of these roles, depending on the kind of relationship
we're in and what's happening. But many people who stutter seem to
chronically lock themselves in a parent/child scenario.
For years, I couldn't drive into a gas station and say "fill it up"
to the attendant without either feeling like I was ordering him around
(parent role), or asking for acceptance (child role). In either case,
playing the child or the parent brought up feelings that made me very
uncomfortable, feelings I didn't want to experience. So in threatening
situations, I'd block them out by not allowing myself to speak. I'd
tighten up and create a speech block until the feelings subsided.
There are many people who stutter who feel like a child every time
they pick up the phone, or who feel judged every time another person
enters the room. For those who carry this burden, the only remedy is to
make an effort to see the world... not as they think it is... but as it really
I still occasionally become uncomfortable when my wipers are on and
other people's aren't. The old tendencies are still there. I'll probably
never get over them completely. But instead of automatically shutting my
wipers off, I now stop and ask myself -- "What do you want?" I question
whether my need to be like other people is more important than doing what
will give me a greater sense of myself. Usually, by becoming aware, I can
choose what I want to do and feel okay about it.
But if the compulsion persists... if I'm still preoccupied with getting
the other drivers on the highway to accept me as okay... I use this as an
indication that some other relationships in my life aren't going well.
Somewhere, things aren't right. I'm not feeling okay about MYSELF, and I
begin to look for what may be really going on.
I'm not always successful at identifying the problem. But at the
very least, I get to clarify one thing. Namely, it's not some anonymous
car jockey driving a black Mustang whose approval I'm seeking.
It's my own.