When Compliments Aren't Helpful

The article's author, Lynne Mackie

In the week in which we launched our campaign Find The Right Words, Lynne Mackie wants people to know that complimenting her on her fluency isn't helping.

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." – old adage

We all know that this saying is false. Words have power, and they can hurt, even when we know that they’re being used to attack us and that we can rise above it.

It’s easy to see how a vitriolic retort or a scathing put down can be damaging, especially when wielded against an insecurity that already exists. For many people who stammer, their speech is a very sensitive topic and it can hurt when it is singled out as different, wrong or funny. Even those of us who accept our stammer can still feel needled if the jibe comes on a day where we’re already feeling frustrated by our speech.

But what about a damaging remark that disguises itself as a compliment?

"Oh, your speech is very good today."

"Well done! You didn’t stammer at all there!"

"That presentation was so much more fluent than last time."

Now, I’m aware that different people who stammer will feel differently about this matter, but – to me – those aren't compliments.

Why is my speech the only thing that someone notices?

I’m always loathe to mention this, particularly to people who don’t stammer, because I know that 99% of the time, these comments come from a good place, and that people are genuinely trying to be supportive and let me know that they think I’m doing ‘well’.

But here's the thing…

If my speech is the only thing that you can compliment after a presentation or meeting, then I think that says something about my overall performance. Why is my speech the only thing that someone notices? It’s the equivalent of going to see an awful play and complimenting the set design when an eager cast member asks for your honest opinion.

And the very fact that someone would comment on how severe my stammer is on that day, rather than the content of what I'm saying, makes me think that they’re not actually listening to me, but only paying attention to how fluent I am. Am I that boring?

I want feedback on what I'm saying, not how I’m saying it. Especially if the 'how' is linked to my stammer, which is something that I can't always control. By all means, if I deliver a speech by shouting into a cardboard tube and you think it's not quite working, let me know. That'll be an ill-advised stylistic choice and I deserve to be called out for it. But in a world where my success as a speaker is judged solely on how fluent I am, I’m fighting an uphill battle in a war that I never wanted to enlist for.

In a world where my success as a speaker is judged solely on how fluent I am, I'm fighting an uphill battle in a war that I never wanted to enlist for.

For me, a good day is one where I feel like I'm engaging with people and they're listening to what I'm saying. A good presentation or discourse is one where people learn from me, see my passion and understand what I'm trying to convey. Whether Im fluent or not is irrelevant. My goal is not to be fluent. It’s to be heard.

I've heard many 'fluent' speakers who were boring to listen to and weren't able to command a room. I've heard people who stammer speak dysfluently and hold an audience captive. Fluent does not equal interesting.

Another reason that complimenting my fluency is not helpful is that I know that it's not permanent. The severity of a stammer can fluctuate from day to day, even minute to minute. Commenting on my fluency only reminds me of this, and can really throw me off when I’m focusing on other things.

There are so many ways that you can support someone who stammers, without making it sound like their value is based solely on how fluent they are in any given moment.

The honest truth is that I don't need anyone to keep track of my stammer. I’ve had quite enough practice of fixating on it all by myself, thanks. And, if you’ve caught me in a moment when I'm not thinking about my stammer, you've just ensured that I’m going to be hyperaware and paranoid about it for the rest of the day. Are people going to think I'm still as fluent, or will people be judging me if I block now that I've been complimented on my fluency? Will they be disappointed in me if my stammer becomes more prominent again?

My brain can have a field day with those kinds of thoughts. And none of them are helpful.

Again, I understand that most of the time these comments come from a good place, and I'm not trying to attack someone for trying to bolster their friend. There are so many ways that you can support someone who stammers, without making it sound like their value is based solely on how fluent they are in any given moment. Compliment their enthusiasm. Compliment their passion and how much they put into a presentation. Compliment that moment in the speech where they used humour and got a laugh. Show that you were actually listening to them.

But let's stop reinforcing the idea that fluency is the most important thing.

Because it isn't.

For finding the right words to say, see our new Editorial Guidelines. It's how we talk.

Lynne is a Stamma trustee and is also on the committee of the Scottish Stammering Network. For more of her thoughts and rambles, check out her YouTube channel StammerOn.

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