by Vicki Benson Schutter

There is an expression that is known by everyone in the United States for whom English is not their native language, every research scientist who is asked by a neighbor about his work, and everyone who stutters. It is that slack-jawed, glassy-eyed look which says, "I have no earthly idea what the hell you just said." You know the look I mean, don't you? There's the person in a car who stops you and wants you to tell them how to get to wherever. (God, I hate that!) You tell them as best you can, and they shake their heads to get That Look off their faces, give you a feeble thank-you (if you're lucky), and hurry off down the road to ask the next person they see.... There's the waitress who asks you for your order. You tell her and she's giving you That Look, and you get this sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that the prime rib and baked potato you blocked on is going to be translated into Hominy Surprise or Eye of Newt or whatever happens to be sitting on a plate that nobody's grabbed.... There's the friend you just told an amusing story to. At least, YOU thought it was amusing, and you know your friend would have found it amusing, too, if she only could have understood you. She's giving you That Look, and you know she loves you and wouldn't hurt you for anything in the world, but she has no idea what you just said and doesn't know whether she should laugh or give an angry grunt or pat you sympathetically on the back. She's anxiously searching your face to try to get a clue from you.

What do you do in those circumstances? What do you do when you know that someone hasn't understood what you said? For me, the question I ask myself is, "How important is it?" If it's just a silly story, I decide the hell with it and just say, "Never mind!" (I'll probably get a lot of response about that from people telling me I'm copping out.) If it's something that I really want, though (like food), or is going to cost money (also food), I get a lot pickier about being understood. I read stories in "Letting Go" all the time from people who tell about how they would order something they didn't really want because they were afraid they would block on what they did want. I guess that's the one advantage to stuttering on everything: if you know you're going to stutter no matter what you say ... hell, you may as well block on what you want!

"Did you understand me?" I ask the waitress wearing That Look. "I said prime rib and baked potato."

"Oh, yeah, I got that," she says, while she is scratching through what she wrote before and jotting down something else (which is hopefully correct this time).

That reminds me - even though it's off the subject - of something I REALLY hate. I just hate it when somebody screws something up and then blames not understanding me. Like when a waitress takes your order, and she repeats it back to you so you KNOW she got it right, but she brings you the wrong thing! And then when you blockingly point out to her that it's not what you ordered, she gets all fakey apologetic and says, "Oh, I'm sooooorrrrry - I guess I just didn't UNDERSTAND you very well." That makes me really, really mad. I mean, I KNOW I'm hard to understand sometimes, and I accept that, and I don't blame people for misunderstanding me. That happens. It just goes with that territory called stuttering. But I'm just going to take responsibility for my OWN difficulties, thank you very much, and I expect other people - fluent or not - to take responsibility for theirs! Boy, that felt good! I'm glad I wrote that, whether it fits or not.

You know what I thought was sweet? The other day I called Main Street Theater in my capacity as Secretary of the Board of Directors. I was telling this girl something about the next board meeting, and I had a big problem with some words. When I finished, there was this silence - I swear I could HEAR That Look coming through the phone line - but instead of saying, "Oh, sure," and then trying to guess at what I might have said, she said, "Sorry, but could you please repeat that? You know how hectic it is around the theater, and there was so much background noise that I couldn't quite make it out." I had to smile, and I thought to myself, "Bless her lying little heart!" Well, of course she couldn't quite make it out ... because I sounded like a damn jackhammer, not because there was any noise! But I thought it was sweet of her to give me that excuse.

Being misunderstood is one of the biggest concerns to those of us who stutter. Sometimes it worries us so that we keep repeating our message, in slightly varied words, until our listener gets exasperated and says, "Yes, yes, I got it! You said thus-and-so." I do that myself, I have to admit, but I don't think it's a very good solution to the problem. Honesty and directness is almost always the best and shortest route to understanding. If your listener is wearing That Look and it's important to you that he understand what you just said, ask him. Just say, "Did you understand me?" If he did, he'll say yes; and if he didn't, he'll probably get this expression of relief on his face because he doesn't have to worry about either guessing what you just said or hurting your feelings, and he'll say, "No, I'm sorry. Would it be too much trouble for you to repeat that?" Maybe he'll even complain about the background noise.

by Victoria Benson Schutter

added March 3, 1997, with permission