Challenging misconceptions

When philosophy graduate Phillip Cole googled the definition of stammering, he was angered by what he read. Here he explores why and sets out to challenge misconceptions about stammering and anxiety. 

My name is Phillip and I have a stammer. I am also a philosophy graduate and a consistently stressed Arsenal fan. But as we try to unpack the popular social perception of a speech impediment, it would seem that my stammer is what best captures the fundamental characteristics for defining me.

As the topic of stammering is so broad and all-encompassing in its effect on an individual’s life, I struggled to briefly articulate what it most represented for me. So, in true undergrad form, I researched stammering on Google for some topical inspiration. Before delving into the emotive and perhaps subjective experiences which have framed my perception of a stammer, I thought it would be helpful to consider some formal understanding of the term, even if just to juxtapose my lived experience with a more objective definition. With this in mind, I chose the first description of a stammer that came up:

'Stammer

Verb: (To) speak with sudden involuntary pauses and a tendency to repeat the initial letters of words.'

"He turned red and started stammering."
"A rather insecure young man with a slight stammer."

Initially, when I saw this belittling and vaguely patronising presentation of a stammer, my instinctive reaction was to pound my desk with contempt and berate my computer screen. 

However, after retrieving my scattered pencils and reflecting in a moment of calm, I considered what had annoyed me with such immediacy. After all, I’d lived through Arsenal’s 9-year trophy drought and emerged with my sanity intact (although I still have nightmares from the 2-1 cup final loss to Birmingham in 2011).  

Insecurity, anxiety and a stammer are NOT concepts which should be so readily associated. 

In fact, throughout primary school education, my stammer was low hanging fruit for quick-witted 10-year-olds to exploit. So, with the various difficulties I’d endured as a child, it seems almost comically fragile for me, as a young man, to take offence from some words on a page. You might just cast off my ‘fragility’ as a symptom of our overly sensitive (insert regional profanity) generation. You might compare a stammer to the respectively difficult ailments afflicting many other people and scoff at the cheek of my annoyance. 

Misconception

So, where does the reasoning for my indignation come from if, ultimately, this is entrenched in some truth? I mulled over this question to consider where my emotive reaction ended, and a legitimate grievance formed. For me, it stems from a common misconception about what it means TO stammer.

As we develop our social awareness, we tend to take visual cues from our environment to establish how best to interact with the world. We associate specific bodily movements and speech patterns with respective characteristics and behaviours, where the success of an interaction is closely linked to these indicators. In keeping with this, it seems apt to draw comparisons with symptoms commonly associated to the physical manifestations of a stammer, to dissect what these may suggest to a listener. 

'Stammer

Verb:  (To) speak with sudden involuntary pauses and a tendency to repeat the initial letters of words.'

A stammer is very often misunderstood because these sorts of generalised definitions are too easily conflated with visual cues for commonplace issues such as anxiety and insecurity. The lack of awareness negates the ability for people to understand what stammering really is, often involving softly spoken reassurances by a listener, such as "Calm down" or "Just relax and speak slower." For a person who stammers, this is not very helpful.

Albeit a basic search, when introduced to the notion of stammering, the consensus seems to be to shrug it off as some symptom of an individual afflicted with a case of the first day of school nerves:

"A rather insecure young man with a slight stammer."
"He turned red and started stammering."

Insecurity, anxiety and a stammer are NOT concepts which should be so readily associated. For many stammerers, speech is a constant struggle to find the strength to persist in a world which largely necessitates fluency and rewards strong spoken communication. When we reinforce notions of a stammer as just the physical manifestation of anxiety and insecurity, this permeates popular thought and makes it even harder for those who stammer to be given a chance to express themselves properly.

With International Stammering Awareness Day having just passed (22nd October) and receiving very little media coverage and awareness, I felt it would be helpful to express some of these points. So, for those of you who don’t stammer, when you’re next speaking to an individual with a speech impediment, it is my hope that this discussion may encourage a more comfortable and positive dialogue. They may or may not be a 'rather insecure young man or woman', but at least give them the benefit of the doubt and exercise just a fraction of the patience required to be an Arsenal fan. 

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