'The look'

16th June 2023

James Hayden, our regular US contributor, explains the reaction some people give when he stammers, and the time when he received 'the look' from the unlikeliest place.

'The look'. Everyone has their own definition of it, but we all know what it means. It's the hard to describe look a parent or teacher gave you that said, "You need to get your act together in the next 0.005 seconds or else."

If you're a person who stutters, 'the look' has a second definition. I don't need to describe it to you. You know exactly what I'm talking about. For those who don't stutter, it's hard to accurately describe 'the look'. It's an expression that blends embarrassment, discomfort, sympathy, wanting to help but not knowing what to do, not knowing what's going on and more, all within a split second of the first stuttering moment. I've seen 'the look' so many times I'm immune to its effects, but I still notice it.

I've seen 'the look' so many times I'm immune to its effects, but I still notice it.

I've had 'the look' from professors, acquaintances, the cashier at the local store, my Uber driver, waiters, classmates, the pizza delivery guy, family, friends, coworkers, the stranger in the lift, and anyone else you can think of. Recently I got 'the look' from a group I never expected.

'The look' from an unlikely place

Recently, I was at a speech and hearing association convention. I got 'the look' from quite a few speech & language pathologists (SLPs) over the two days I was there. (SLPs are what therapists are called here in the US.) And if I'm being honest, in those moments I lost my immunity and was hurt. For the first time in years, I became more aware of and more self-conscious of my stutter. I expect 'the look' from others but not from SLPs. They are trained professionals in this field after all. I didn't know how to best respond in the moment. So, I put on a happy face and kept it moving. It wasn't until after the convention that I allowed myself to process and reflect on those looks.

As I've mentioned in a previous article, I believe showing grace is a key ingredient in advocating for stammering. This convention made me put those words into action in a way I never expected. Don't get me wrong, I was hurt by getting 'the look' from them. However, I had to remind myself to not sit in the suck of it and to give them grace. They are humans before they are SLPs after all. I think their response also has to do with the field of speech & language pathology. How stuttering is viewed and understood has evolved immensely over the past couple of decades. Also, most speech & language pathology courses don't or barely cover stuttering. Lastly, in my experience, most SLPs don't work with people who stutter often. I've heard of some who might only have one or two stuttering clients in their entire career. As a result, they don't know what they don't know.

During the person's stuttering moments, give a look that says, 'it's OK' and not 'this is wrong'.

Because of this, they might have forgotten what stuttering looks or sounds like, with the human response of "I've never heard this; I don't know what to do; I'm uncomfortable," unconsciously showing on their faces. Better known as 'the look'.

What can be done?

So, what can be done to fix this? What can SLPs do so people who stutter don't get 'the look' from those trained to help us? First, feel the human response for a moment. It's natural and deserves to be felt. Then put on your SLP hat and realise the person you're talking to has a communication disorder. My friend Nicole said it best: "Instead of it being sirens and alerts it should be like a light bulb going off, like 'oh this person stutters' instead of 'there's something wrong'." During the person's stuttering moments, give a look that says, 'it's OK' and not 'this is wrong'. More importantly, as another friend Steff said, "You don't have to stare them in their face. That's awkward for anyone. Just listen." You never know the impact one look will have on someone. So, please don't give us 'the look'.

Disclaimer: Many of my friends are SLPs. I'm not talking about them. They're great friends, allies, and people. I'm talking about SLPs who aren't familiar with stuttering. The ones where I'm more knowledgeable about the topic than they are.

Note: This article was partially inspired by an excerpt from John Hendrickson's book Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter.

Read more articles from James, and more Your Voice articles from people who stammer and their allies. Would you like to write something? See Share Your Story or email for details.

Two women in running outfits holding flags and looking at the camera
Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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