22nd March 2022
Our regular contributor from the USA, James Hayden, gives an impassioned argument against the popular phrase.
"Did I stutter?". Some variation of this phrase is typically used when, for instance, person A clearly says something to person B, who does not understand what person A said. Person B then asks person A to repeat themselves to which person A says the aforementioned phrase. This is typically meant as an insult to person B as they could not clearly hear person A.
This phrase has been around for decades and has been said in every possible venue: film, television, commercials, gifs, memes, TikToks, everyday conversations, even tweets from politicians.
As a person who stutters (PWS), I've been uneasy about this phrase for as long as I can remember. I know other PWS who don't have any issues with it and that's OK. Every PWS is on their own journey and views stuttering through their own lens. Whenever I hear this phrase, I cringe. I cringe because it comes across as demeaning and insulting to the stuttering community. Dare I say it's slightly offensive. I cringe because it shows how far we still have to go in terms of education.
Although there are many examples to choose from, I'm going to focus on uses of this phrase in three different contexts. They are: an attempt at humour; making stuttering seem like a bad thing; and perpetuating the negative stereotype that stuttering equals lying.
Attempt at humour
What are they telling their fans who stutter? That stuttering is worth laughing at?
Our most (in)famous example comes from a scene in a 2008 episode of The Office (U.S. version) titled 'Did I Stutter?'. In the scene, Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) asks his co-workers for ideas on how to energise their office. After being asked, and declining, numerous times, Stanley (Leslie David Baker) says, "Did I stutter?". The room is instantly filled with awkward silence and Scott quickly moves to the next person. Watch the clip below, at 01:45.
This scene produced the episode title, and a popular gif, and left with me with a few questions. What was it trying to show their audience? That those three words are enough to break an awkward silence and get a laugh? What are they telling their fans who stutter? That stuttering is worth laughing at? For a show with that type of platform and following, that’s the wrong message to send.
Stuttering being a 'bad' thing
Our next example is found in season thirty of my favourite show, Survivor. In one episode, contestant Will uses a variation of the phrase after verbally assaulting fellow contestant Shirin. Another contestant, Mike, comes to her defence and asks Will to repeat himself, to which Will responds, "I don't stutter, bro." Watch the clip.
To me, the way Will says this comes across as defensive and angry mixed with a tinge of shame. As if someone just announced his biggest secret to the world and he’s not comfortable with it. I related to that mindset. For so long, if you brought up my stutter, I told you off. I’m not proud of that, but that’s the way I knew how to handle it. Looking back, I did it from a place of embarrassment, shame, and some anger about being a person who stutters. Even though I now embrace my stutter those feelings of shame, anger and embarrassment came back when I heard Will’s words. For me, what Will said further instills the negative belief that stuttering is something to be embarrassed and ashamed about, and angered by. In reality, it's the opposite. It is OK to stutter.
Stuttering equals 'lying'
Although progress has been made removing the stigma associated with stuttering, we still have a long way to go. In a July 2021 tweet, Angela Rayner, a member of the British Labour Party, used the phrase in a tweet: "Did I stutter? Tell me where I'm wrong."
What other difference is still openly made fun of and mocked in today's climate?
The tweet was in response to a news reporter sharing Rayner's reaction to a quote Prime Minister Boris Johnson made. The way Rayner used the phrase implied that she lied. For so long, stuttering has been equated to lying and this tweet just perpetuates that lie. To make her point, she could've said "Did I lie?" or even better "Was I wrong?" Rather, she uses the one phrase that puts an entire section of the population down and further reinforces a false stereotype. Rayner might not have known this, but this is just another example of the importance of educating others about and advocating for stuttering.
With these and many other unnamed examples, what does it say about us as a society that this phrase is still prevalent in pop culture? In the past two years, the importance of diversity and inclusion (D&I) has become more prevalent; however, stuttering is still not thought of when we think about D&I. What other difference is still openly made fun of and mocked in today's climate?
What can we do about it?
So, what can we do to better ourselves? The easiest answer is to remove the phrase from our lexicon. Instead of saying "Did I stutter", one can use "Did you not understand me?", "Do I need to repeat myself?" or "Am I wrong?" amongst other phrases.
Secondly, we need to educate ourselves about stuttering. It's more than repeating the first syllable of our name or blocking on our coffee order. It's self-doubt. It's not ordering what you want but ordering what you can say without stuttering. It's avoiding situations because you'd rather stay silent than stutter. It's doing everything in your power to not stutter. Over time, these feelings might disappear and you may learn to be OK with this part of yourself. However, these feelings might rear their ugly head every once in a while, and hearing the phrase "Did I stutter?" could be that catalyst for their return.
Lastly, we need to see people who stutter in our media where stuttering is just one part of their story and not their whole story. The more we see and hear stuttering the sooner we normalise it and remove "Did I stutter?" from our vocabulary.
And for the record, yes I did stutter.
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