25th January 2023
Wondering what the experience is like for other people when he stammers, Tom Wells decided to ask his friends how they feel. Find out what both sides learnt in his enlightening article.
Every person — no matter their age or culture — strives to find a comfortable and safe space to become themselves. Nonetheless, I sometimes get uncomfortable when I cannot say what I want to say to my friends.
I tend to write about how perceptions and stigma of stammering affect my feelings and emotions. I've grown to accept my voice as it is, but it is easy to forget about the thoughts and feelings of those I interact with every day — after all, a conversation is built on mutual trust and understanding.
In this regard, I asked my friends to give me an honest response to my speech. So… what is the best way for someone who stammers to feel comfortable in their own skin whilst also providing a comfortable atmosphere where both parties don't feel awkward?
Problems always arise from misperception
As a stammerer, I find it is easy to judge myself when talking to others: the excuses normally involve 'I don't sound like everybody else', 'they are getting fidgety so obviously it's me', 'they look bored, so they don't want to listen to me', etc. And sometimes, but very rarely, these excuses resemble part of the truth. The trick is to understand why people can sometimes become uncomfortable when talking to someone who stammers.
Humans are the hardest species to understand. My friends are no exceptions, and they feel the same way about me. Therefore, I feel that instead of focusing just on my reality (often skewed!) I should understand and empathise with the people I most care about. And in return, I hope they take the time to understand the difficulties I face.
The trick is to understand why people can sometimes become uncomfortable when talking to someone who stammers.
Somebody I know admitted that when they first met me, they found conversations with me were frustrating and annoying. They had to put in a lot of effort to understand what I was saying, plus they weren't very patient when the conversation became too long. Looking back, I realise they had fallen prey to common misperceptions of stammering. Furthermore, they told me they were ignorant of stammering and commented that once they knew me their misperceptions were easier to overcome.
I think that as somebody who suffered social anxiety, I sometimes missed social cues. My low self-confidence in my stammer didn't help much. But social skills are tools that I can learn like anything else (sometimes more difficult with a stammer). Moreover, I read Olivia Fox Cabane's The Charisma Myth and, although not the best book on the subject, it had a few gems. It states that charisma has three components: power, presence and warmth. For me, the latter two jumped out. I used to panic when somebody was talking to me (as I had to talk next!). No surprise then that I sometimes missed what somebody said: I wasn't fully 'present'. Like any social interaction, it takes two to build a conversation.
I know that my friends care more about what I say than how I say it. And in their words, a stammer only adds to my character.
When I socialise now, I try to ask myself these questions:
Should I focus all my energy on meeting the other person's expectations? NO!
Should I focus all my energy on my internal feelings? NO!
Should I focus all my energy in feeling comfortable in my skin and having empathy for the other person? YES!
If I don't feel comfortable to fully open-up to a group of friends, I sometimes think they are not the ones for me. When in fact, they might be as terrified, worried or awkward themselves to commit to the friendship. It is comforting to know other people have the same nerves as I do. The only way — I find — is to be kind and take a leap of faith.
The positive effects of socialising with someone who stammers
My friends noticed some positive character growth when socialising with me. The most obvious was a greater respect and tolerance for situations and people that don't follow social norms. Additionally, they certainly learned a lot more about stammering throughout our friendship.
I found an interesting quotation online that I believe sums up this experience: People who stutter have the unique opportunity to teach the world to listen.'
Ultimately, I find those that really care about me see my stammer as a unique trait; something to display to the world rather than hide in embarrassment. Of course, there are people who will remain entrenched in the negative stigma that surrounds stammering. I can only hope they will learn to see it as a character trait than something to be 'cured'.
Whatever happens, I know that my friends care more about what I say than how I say it. And in their words, a stammer only adds to my character.