40 years of self-managing my stammer
24th January 2020
As a teenager, Richard Smith's self-consciousness really held him back. But through his life experiences after leaving school, including speaking to farmers about muck-spreading and his time on a kibbutz in Israel, he found ways to cope.
I’ve often heard statisticians say that a majority of young people grow out of their stammer. I disagree. You can learn to manage your stammer but, it never leaves you.
My name is Richard, I’m 58 and I live in Edinburgh with my wife, our two teenage sons and two retired greyhounds. I was about 12 when I first became conscious of having a stammer. That consciousness just made everything worse. I spent the rest of my school years hiding at the back of the classroom or at the back of the playground – anywhere that minimised the possibility of having to speak.
And Richard is a terrible name for someone who stammers. That hard ‘Ri’ first syllable is a nightmare. “What’s your name?” “R-r-r-r-r-r-ri-ri-ri…………” Give up.
Teasing was a daily occurrence. Not really bullying, just soul-destroying. Bachman Turner Overdrive’s song ‘B-b-b-baby, you just ain't seen na-na-nothin’ yet’ always seemed to be playing whenever I entered the common room, accompanied by mass sniggering.
I avoided social situations as much as possible. My unrequited love for Wendy (or Sharon or Gillian) was less than my fear of stammering in public. Best to stay away from parties and discos. Single, sad, but safe from embarrassment and ridicule.
Bachman Turner Overdrive's song 'B-b-b-baby, you just ain't seen na-na-nothin' yet' always seemed to be playing whenever I entered the common room, accompanied by mass sniggering.
And what support did I get? None – well, this was a big Bristol comp in the 1970s. Speech therapists apparently hadn’t been invented. My teachers weren’t interested. My parents weren’t much better. My mother, who was a teacher, thought this was all about phonetics: “Speak properly,” she used to say. “Pronounce your words correctly.” Loving, but useless. My father didn’t know what to say so he said nothing.
Muck-spreading and a kibbutz
I began to better manage my stammer when I left school and joined an insurance company. Having to speak slowly and deliberately to farmers about their 3rd-party liabilities when muck-spreading really helped. I found I could follow a script if I used words and phrases that I could say without crashing. Never have the consequences of mis-throwing shit been so useful.
The next breakthrough came when I lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year as a volunteer. The lovely Scandinavian girls struggled to understand my Bristolian accent, even when I wasn’t stammering. So, to achieve my ‘romantic’ purposes, I had to reinvent my speech pattern. I spoke like Hemingway wrote: short, soft, oft-repeated sentences. Which seemed to work.
I don’t hate my stammer. It is part of me.
I also discovered the magic word, ‘hej’. Hej (Swedish for ‘hey’) is a lovely, friendly word and a great start to any sentence. I found that once I got the first word out, the rest of the sentence usually followed in a reasonably understandable order. And hej was the easiest word to say.
“What’s your name?” “Hej, my name’s Richard. Fancy a beer?”
And that was the start of forty years of self-managing my stammer. I found that there were sounds, words and phrases that I could say with reasonable confidence – and if I started any conversation with one of them, I could usually make myself understood without embarrassment. People, my wife especially, notice that I often seem to repeat myself or talk in clichés. Which is true. But it is deliberate. Because I can say those phrases with confidence.
My (long) career has spanned both the public and private sectors and I currently lead a portfolio of projects and programmes for Lloyds Bank. My stammer hasn’t gone away; fellow people who stammer can spot my pauses, swallows and trip-ups. I just know how to hide my stammer. It’s still there, but I can usually keep it away from public eyes and ears.
My stammer hasn’t ruined my life but it has constrained it. My teenage years were an ordeal and my social confidence has never really recovered. I don’t hate my stammer. It is part of me. I am just sad that I have had to manage it alone.
I think that society has changed since the 1970s and people now realise that those with a stammer need to be supported, helped and loved. Not ignored or left to their own devices. I hope so. We’re not stupid. Just the victims of some dodgy wiring in the speech pathway.
One happier consequence: I have no fear of public speaking. I love the performance. People ask me how I can be so nerveless. Easy, I tell them. Real fear is not being able to speak.
Richard has invited anyone to get in touch via LinkedIn. Go to www.linkedin.com/in/richard-g-m-smith
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