You might have heard others stutter, or even recognized when you got caught in a stuttering moment yourself. Let’s break it down.
Everyone stutters sometimes. For 1% of the population, however, stuttering is a speech disorder that begins in childhood and may last throughout adulthood. It can present as repetitions of sounds, words, or blocks where the person can’t get a sound out for several seconds. People who stutter want to speak smoothly and know what they want to say – they just have difficulty doing so and know that this can be extremely socially isolating.
Don’t take it from us, listen to what those who stutter directly are saying: “Growing up, I always struggled with my stutter. As a child, I was silenced, bullied, and ashamed about how I spoke, which led me to hide my stutter from other people.” – (“Discrimination Against my Stutter”, January 2016).
Stuttering can be triggered by specific social settings, for instance, speaking in front of large groups, in school, at work, to a boss, over the phone, etc. So people who stutter may choose to avoid certain activities and become reclusive, because they fear how the general public might treat them.
“My sister would call my friends on the phone for me because when I called, their moms would hang up before I got out what I wanted to say.” (Hays, January 2017).
“The feeling of disappointment, numbness and simultaneous relief after a tough presentation is all too familiar… I had just finished a 20-minute presentation that should have only taken five-minutes… because of a relentless barrage of stuttering and vocal blocks.” (“On Perseverance and adaptation, October 2017).
Public attitudes toward stuttering foster misinformation and stereotypes that can lead to stigma and discrimination. For example, surveys show that people who stutter are perceived by the general public to be nervous, shy, afraid, passive and so on, rather than being perceived as confident, friendly, and attractive to others.
Bibi, like many others who stutter, felt that her stuttering needed to be hidden and made her look stupid. “Every conversation I had made me fearful because the thought of stuttering in front of another person was horrifying. I felt as though I had no safe space. I was never really myself with anyone, including family and friends.” (Herder, 2018).
Stuttering can become worse by a negative reaction from a listener. Here are some ideas of how you can interact with someone who stutters:
What you CAN do to help when someone is stuttering:
Maintain eye contact
Be patient! Wait to let the person say what they want
Pay attention to what the person is saying by being sensitive, friendly and non-judgmental
Ask them what they prefer you to do when they stutter
If questions are welcome, asking questions about stuttering can create a sense of acceptance, inclusiveness and comfort
Focus on the message
What NOT to do:
Rush them; pressure to speak quickly may increase stuttering
Finishing their stuttered words and/or sentences (unless they ask you to)
Offer advice for stuttering: giving tips or saying it’s easy to stop stuttering
Fake stuttering during conversation
Tell the person how they should feel about their stuttering
Assume or ignore a message that you do not understand
Overall, it is important that you treat the people who stutter like anyone else – make it known that you are interested in what the person is saying rather than the way in which they are saying it. This will help both conversational partners feel at ease.