8th August 2023
Ezra Horak argues that we should stop equating 'good communication' with speaking fluently if we are to stop marginalising people who stammer.
Fluency is a myth. There's no such thing. 'Clear' communication is often code for: no stumbling, no stammers, no incorrect words.
The definition of 'fluent' from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, with regards to communication:
- 'Capable of using language easily and accurately.'
- 'Effortlessly smooth and flowing.'
Now, let's look at the definition of 'effective communication'. This isn't in the dictionary, so I'll use the definition from coursera.com: 'Effective communication is the process of exchanging ideas, thoughts, opinions, knowledge, and data so that the message is received and understood with clarity and purpose. When we communicate effectively, both the sender and receiver feel satisfied'.
In other words, communication is about the sender's message being accurately and helpfully understood by the receiver.
Notice there is no mention of speech being free from bumps and stammers. There is no mention of the word 'fluent'.
Effective communication has nothing to do with stammering, or a lack thereof.
Yet, it is rare to meet a person who stammers who believes themselves to be an effective communicator. Messages all around us, subtle and direct, tell people who stammer that our communication skills are weak. They say or imply that it is impossible for us to be effective communicators when speaking. After all, we stammer.
It is all too common for a person who stammers to read a job description and deflate when seeing 'Must have excellent communication skills'. Dream jobs are passed up — and this is all due to the messaging we receive.
My Own Story
When I was 23, I was sitting in the passenger seat while my friend drove down the highway. We were close friends who rarely spoke about my stammer, despite it being a major influence on my life. In response to something I said, he made the comment, "Why not? You're a really good communicator".
My laugh was strangled and pained. I thought he was mocking me. I want that to settle in: a close friend of 9 years, who had never so much as teased any stuttering moment I had. I sooner believed he would mock my stammer — something he knew to be my biggest pain point — than think people who stammer could be good communicators.
"Don't be cruel," I said to him. "I stutter."
His eyes widened as he turned away from the road to look at me. "So what?" he said, "Effective communication is about making sure the listener understands your message clearly. And you’re great at that, stutter or not. That has nothing to do with it. In fact, you're a lot better at it than a LOT of fluent people. They don't stutter, but they have no idea how to connect a message to an individual. But you do. And not just in writing".
I had a system reboot after this.
It may seem obvious to most people who don't stammer — that whenever someone says 'good communication' it doesn't exclude people who stammer. And yet, nearly all people who stammer have, at some point, considered their stammer to be a hindrance to their communication skills.
And I think the danger for this is only increasing.
1. We keep saying 'fluency' as some kind of goal. Maybe in speech therapy for some 'gold star' of communication. In the therapy room, fluency goals can harm stammerers. Being acceptable is equated to no or minimal stammering.
2. We talk about people who still stammer — and hide it or stammer very little — as having 'overcome' or 'practised away' their stammer. One example is the actor James Earl Jones, who has repeatedly stated that he still stutters. And yet Wikipedia and articles about him say he has 'overcome' his 'childhood stutter'.
3. People might assume that a stammerer will be embarrassed by their speech. Most stammerers have examples of times when people, perhaps well-meaning, encouraged them not to speak. Perhaps this was for a play, where lines were cut. Maybe it was a teacher not calling on them in class. Or a professor suggesting a student get into a field with 'less speaking'. It could have been a parent who searched online desperately for cures.
4. There's very little representation of openly stammering. Lists of 'Famous people who stammer' are largely full of actors and musicians who don't appear to stammer. If a character stammers in a film or book, it is because they are nervous (yikes!) or because it has a message in 'overcoming' a stammer. Real representation is in characters who just happen to stammer and it having nothing to do with their personality or story. It's just one aspect. We see glimpses of this with Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, or Benicio del Toro in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The latter has mixed reviews, since the character is deceitful. But I saw him as a cocky, arrogant person who just happened to stammer. I like that we had a cocky and arrogant stammerer. How often do we see portrayals of people who stammer like that? But the point is the same: if there were more representations, the stammering community wouldn't need to worry about misunderstandings.
5. The media often redoes scenes, edits out any hiccups, pauses or perceived 'flaws' in dialogue. The worst part, to me, is that anyone can do this now. There are hundreds of video editing apps. We live so much of our lives online and it's become easier to edit our stammering out of the life we present to people.
Hiding a stammer can make for more difficult communication. It can also make conversation and communication less effective. Instead of using words that are most accurate, stammerers may find themselves picking ones they won't stammer on. This is a direct result of pushing the idea of 'fluency' as a gold star of communication.
The focus on effective communication needs to be, instead of fluency, around helping people communicate comfortably, confidently, and in a way that connects with their audience/listener. We are perfectly capable of doing those things with a stammer. The push to conform people to speak the same way erases diversity of voices and communication, and will further marginalise anyone that doesn't fit the mould.
To that end, we need to remove language like 'fluency' or 'smooth' when speaking about effective communication skills. It's not only incorrect, it's harmful. Society would be better served helping people communicate comfortably and confidently, while also teaching others to listen to voices that do not sound like their own.