What not to do when someone stammers

A woman looking at the camera and smiling

Saying and doing certain things when someone stammers, however well meant, can be unhelpful, says Amelia Spears. Here she lists a few of those things and offers some alternatives.

I stammer. It's either something I’ll tell you, or something you'll notice when I try to order an oat milk latte; or perhaps you won't be able to hear it at all. It may be a surprise to you. It might take a few seconds to clock, a few minutes to absorb. But rest assured, dear reader, that there are some ways to respond that are better than others. Allow me to escort you through a handful of things to avoid when someone is stammering. Because I've had more experience of these than I'd like to, and now I have some things to say. 

1. Don't laugh

Let's start with the obvious. So obvious, in fact, that you may have just clucked your tongue and rolled your eyes, safe in the knowledge that you would never do anything so unkind. I'm sure you wouldn't. You seem perfectly lovely. But from the depths of my heart, allow me to remind you anyway. Please don't laugh at us. Whether it's saying our name to a stranger, placing a coffee shop order, trying to renew our phone contract or saying our wedding vows, there's really never a convenient time to stammer and I promise you, it's never funny. 

I realise that sometimes people laugh because they don't know how else to respond, but I wish they wouldn't.

Even a snigger can be hurtful. A chuckle, a supressed smirk; all of it can feel like the world is crashing down on us. Years of mockery suddenly race back in painful nostalgia. It's a bit rubbish, and the worst part is that very few actually understand how damaging it can be, how it can spoil your day. 

I realise that sometimes people laugh because they don't know how else to respond, but I wish they wouldn't. Instead, smile, look us in the eye, don't feel ashamed on our behalf. And if someone that you're with is laughing out of spite, call them out. Tell them it's not okay. Because it's not, it truly isn't.

2. Don't talk for us

This is another one that may seem obvious, but alas, here we are. Unless we specifically ask you to speak for us, don't do it. It really is as simple as that. 

This also goes for finishing our sentences for us. Whilst we may feel relief at first, it can lead to frustration and disappointment. 

You do not know exactly what we want to say. Moreover, butting in and speaking over us implies that we're not worth the time it takes to listen. Without wishing to sound dramatic, you're taking away our voices. We have beautiful voices. Let us use them. Unless we're completely knackered, in which case we might ask you to order our large haddock at the chippy. Don't skimp on the vinegar. 

3. Don't be our new speech therapist

"Have you tried wearing headphones all day, every day for the rest of your life?"

Funnily enough, I haven't. 

Neither am I prepared to speak with marbles in my mouth, for the record. 

"I don't know how you do it" implies immense strength and bravery...there really isn't any other alternative to being strong and brave. What am I going to do, not speak? You really don't know me at all.

Listen, I understand. You cried at that episode of Educating Yorkshire. You thought The King's Speech was wonderful. I agree, Mr Darcy and Captain Barbossa gave stellar performances. However, appreciating these shows and films does not make you a qualified speech and language therapist. 

I wish I didn't have to say this, but I've had people genuinely declare that they know exactly what I'm going through because they saw The King's Speech, and they know exactly what I need to do to 'get better'. Unfortunately, the answer is never having Helena Bonham Carter for a wife. 

Asking about speech therapy is fine; becoming a temporary speech therapist just for us is a bit much. Just like finishing our sentences, unless we ask you to remind us of techniques to help our stammer, please don't. Stepping in with unsolicited advice and miracle cures is a bit weird, especially if we've only just met.

4. Don't say "I don't know how you do it"

Neither do we, dear reader, neither do we. 

Alright, I'm being dramatic this time, but it's something I've heard so often and it's always said with such earnestness that I feel guilty bringing it up. 

The short answer to this loaded question is that there's no other alternative to 'doing it' (yes, snigger, go ahead). Not doing it would be not speaking, not interacting, not living the life we've been given. Which is a very gloomy thought that I try to avoid because it makes me sad.

"I don't know how you do it" implies immense strength and bravery which I will never deny having. Everyone who stammers is strong, and they are brave, and they show this every day. But as I said, for me, there really isn't any other alternative to being strong and brave. What am I going to do, not speak? You really don't know me at all.

Alright, I've scolded you enough, and you've taken it so well. To conclude this cathartic writing exercise, I'd love to end on a positive note.

Here are some alternative things to say:

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"How can I support you?"

"Take your time." 

"I'm listening." 

"Do you want to get food?" (the answer is always yes). 

The simple things are always the best. The knowledge that you're listening to our words and not how we say them can feel like lifting a mountain off our shoulders and placing it down somewhere we can’t see it (for example, in the bin). 

At the end of the day, I just want to be heard, and I think I speak for many others who stammer when I say that. 

Give us the time to speak, instead of telling us how.

Read more in our page In Conversation With Someone Who Stammers.

Would you like to write an article? See Submit Something For The Site to find out how. Read more great Your Voice articles.

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Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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