Covert and Overt Stuttering

I’m trying to understand this covert and overt thing a little better. Remember that I haven’t talked to anybody about my stuttering (until now, basically) so the terminology and labeling is … well, interesting.

Tony mentioned it on his blog the other day:

I use fluency tricks to hide my stuttering because I want to sound like people who are fluent. Does this mean that I am ashamed of stuttering? Perhaps. That would be a matter between me and my therapist, if I had one. 🙂 Does this mean that I don’t accept my stutter? Not at all. I accept is as much as a person must accept that he has only one leg or one eye. I AM A STUTTERER. See? There, I wrote it. I am not delusional. 😛 I am okay with reality. However, this does not mean that I have to be okay with stuttering. There is a difference, in my opinion.

I think the covert-overt thing is kind of funny at times. Because, what, you’re basically covert until you stutter … then the cat’s out of the bag, right? I mean, sure, the Starbucks barista doesn’t know I stutter (and of course I didn’t get what I wanted because I was afraid of stuttering when I ordered it) but after meeting a new person at work and talking to them off and on for a week, I’m probably going to stutter. Then what? Maybe they’ll just think that I was nervous or couldn’t find the right word and stumbled over it? So they don’t think that I completely stutter? I suppose that’s being covert, sure. Or maybe they’ll realize it and not think anything of it?

So for some people I’m covert, and others I’m overt?

Here’s the definition from the Stuttering Foundation at the Guidelines (An excerpt of Chapter 23 from the book Advice to Those Who Stutter)

There appear to be two main types of stutterers: (1) the covert stutterer who attempts to avoid contacts with feared words and situations that might identify him as a possible stutterer to his listeners and (2) the overt stutterer who struggles laboriously through word after word as he communicates. Which one are you?

Right.

So I guess in my mind, I’m a covert stutterer, and in reality, I’m overt. I think this is part of the iceberg — ok, sure, I stutter, but I don’t want the listener to identify me as someone who stutters. As in, when the conversation is done, and they talk to their friends, they don’t say something like, “oh, you know, Rehan, the guy upstairs who stutters?”

I think lately (past 5 years or so) I’ve been more overt because well, I have things at work I just have to say. And I’ve noticed that people don’t seem to mind the stutter on a few words here and there.

Here’s another older article that touches on it. And this might explain why I didn’t do speech therapy all the way through school.

For MacIntyre, as long as she could replace words, or avoid situations where she knew she would block, she said, she could hide her problem from everyone, including her parents. “I was a walking thesaurus,” she said. When MacIntyre was in grade school, she was already showing signs of stuttering. But when a specialist told her mother to ignore the symptoms, MacIntyre began consciously masking her stutter. Her parents assumed she had simply grown out of it.

I’m curious how other people label themselves and their subsequent behavior. I’m guessing someone who’s overt doesn’t preface every conversation with “look, I stutter, so bear with me.” Or do they?

Maya Angelou’s Stuttering Brother

Maya Angelou passed away yesterday. The Stuttering Foundation brought up an interesting fact about her and her brother regarding how she got her name.

Working as a Calypso dancer at the San Francisco club The Purple Onion, Angelou, performing as Marguerite Johnson or Rita at the time, was told she needed a more theatrical stage name. By combining “Maya,” the name her stuttering brother Bailey had given her when they were children, and a variation of her ex-husband’s last name, she became “Maya Angelou.”

The Foundation then posed the question on their Facebook page about changing our own names. Is this something you would do?

For me? I wouldn’t change my name. But maybe the way it’s pronounced …

My name is Rehan. Growing up in the States, I pronounced it as the ‘re’ in ‘return’ and the ‘han’ as in ‘con.’ As someone who stutters, my name definitely gives me the hardest time. I’ll probably fill a week’s worth of posts on it, but the short version is that it only comes out with enormous effort. Any kind of introduction — in person or on the phone — is the worst.

When I came to Saudi 3.5 years ago for work, I actually changed the way I pronounced my name because the way that I’ve been pronouncing it is not the way a native Arabic speaker pronounces it.

The word Rehan is actually an Arabic word meaning something like a scent or odor. (A good one).

For a native Arabic speaker, the first syllable sounds more like “ray” than “ree.” But it’s not really “ray,” because you’re softly bouncing your tongue off the roof of your mouth. It’s a sound that’s not in the English language. The second syllable also comes more from the throat. Anyway, it’s a totally different pronunciation, and basically a totally different word to me. More importantly it’s a different word to my brain as well. My brain seems hell-bent on stuttering on the usual pronunciation of my name, but in the first year or two of coming to Saudi, it didn’t get as hung up on the new pronunciation.

Things in years 3 and 4 are sort of leveling out, but saying the “Arabic” pronunciation isn’t too rough for whatever reason. Even on the phone. The funny thing is that I use a different pronunciation based on the listener — if they’re a native English speaker, I’ll use the version I’ve grown up with. And stutter. I do this because they are used to those sounds and pronunciation. If it’s someone from Saudi/India/Pakistan, I’ll use the more Arabic pronunciation. Make sense?

Did I change my name to try to hide my stutter? Maybe so. But I’m saying it to some people the way they would say it anyway. And it’s easier for me! And just getting through my name right off the bat builds a huge amount of confidence.

So what is the deal with saying our own names — and why is it so difficult? Here’s on take from an old posting on the Stuttering Forum:

Basically, we can’t substitute our names.

And of course when we do stutter on our names — don’t you know your own name?! — a Reddit thread.

Lastly, I found some very inspirational quotes from Maya Angelou as well:

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Well, my stuttering is a long untold story. So now it’s slowly coming out. And it does feel great.

“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

I’d say that this nicely summarizes the long term mission of this site.

The Stuttering Iceberg

As a covert stutterer, the first ironic rule about stuttering is that you don’t talk about stuttering. The second is that you don’t ask around about it either.

So that’s where I found myself several years ago as I started to take notes on my stuttering. I wanted to write a book about it since there aren’t that many out there. It turns out that a lot of what I was doing was documenting the iceberg. It seems that everybody in the stuttering world already knows about the iceberg.

From Say.org:

Like an iceberg, the broader challenges and issues are often pushed so deep beneath the surface that they can no longer be seen by others. These added issues can include fear, confusion, denial, anger, shame, guilt, anxiety and other suppressed emotions and feelings.

One of the mantras in business that has really come on strong in the past few years is the idea of communication. That separate business units within a company shouldn’t be in “silos.” They should share best practices, communicate and improve the company as a whole.

Well, what if you don’t like communicating? What if you stutter when you talk? What if that leads you to just put your nose down and get on with it?

What if you don’t know what you don’t know — and there’s no Internet to tell you what you don’t know? I’ve been stuttering for 28 years and this is the first time I heard about the iceberg. Seriously. Nobody every said anything about it to me, and it’s been around for ages. Should I be upset at my therapists or parents for not knowing? I don’t think so. But my point is that today, with the Internet, and with so much capacity for sharing, there’s no longer an excuse for someone who stutters not to know.

Have I searched for stuttering information online before this? No, not really — that’s true, so that’s obviously on me. But at the same time, my friends and loved ones never offered anything up either. And what does that mean? It means they think that I have it together. They think that I’m only the tip of the iceberg. Just because it seems like someone who stutters isn’t terribly bothered by it, doesn’t hurt to have the conversation. There’s very likely a lot more going on than you think.

If that doesn’t make sense to you — why wouldn’t I want to find out more about it if the Internet is available — then well, go back to the top of this post and read the first and second ironic rules again.

Building things up

Getting back to one of the links from Sunday:

Wahl writes:

“Fluency in speech is something most have the luxury of taking for granted. While living with a stutter, you worry about what to order in a restaurant, how to give a presentation, or even how to say “hello” to a friend. Like an architect designing a building, a stutterer carefully crafts each word and sentence. Sometimes the result is a masterpiece, structurally sound with ornate rooms and gleaming windows. Other times it crashes to the ground.”

As someone who stutters, I definitely think a lot about what I want to say before I say it. I obsess over it. I fear it. I think, ok, do I have to introduce myself? Is that really necessary? I’m going to have to say a w-word, right? Something like who, when, where, why, what. How am I going to do that? For example, asking “where is the bathroom?” So simple, yet I’d rather walk all over the place trying to find it on my own. I go through a mock conversation in my head a few times. Ok, I’ll say this, they’ll say that, then I’ll say … no, wait, I need to say something else, I’ll stutter on that word.

Since I live and work in Saudi, most of my work interactions are with non-native English speakers. I want — really want — to keep the sentences and ideas that I say simple and to the point. But then I start avoiding words. I start going off track. I start substituting words while I’m going off track. I can see the listener getting confused. I can see how my point is getting totally muddied up. At these times, when I know I’m in too deep and the misunderstanding will cause more trouble, I go back to the original sentence and stutter it out.

Occasionally I can get away with avoiding a few words and still getting my message across. But that doesn’t work on everybody. One of my colleagues is British, and if I substitute a word or use a phrase that isn’t quite right, he’ll totally call me out on it. He doesn’t call me out on a substitution knowing that I stutter. No, we don’t talk about that — but on the specific meaning of what I said. Then I have to backtrack and explain what I mean — often having to stutter through what I wanted to say anyway.

Powerpoints and Children

I wanted to expand some more on the links that I posted yesterday. We’ll start with this one from Stuttering Student:

(When I say I want to discuss a link further, it may be only somewhat related. If the author mentioned a few points, I may only pick one. Or I may ignore the main point and just expand on something smaller they said.)

He says:

Sometimes my fluency tricks will help, mostly they don’t, however, because one of the biggest fluency tricks I use is word substitution, and you can’t really get away with that when reading from printed text.

I know what I end up doing sometimes when I have to read printed text is gloss over it, maybe mumble a bit, and then try to find some more points that are important. This happens a lot at work during meetings when there’s a Powerpoint. I don’t like reading the slides, and I hate it when people do the same. So when I do my own presentations, I put only a few words and then “fill in the blanks” orally during the meeting. I’ll say something like, “so, then, you see, there, in point 1, you can see it … (pause) … and the second point is also important.” Let them do the reading! Sometimes during conference calls I’ve got to present a safety topic. This has to be e-mailed out before. Whenever I have to do these, I always skim over them during the call (again, they can do the reading! I’ve e-mailed it to you!). But during those readings I almost always stutter. But at least I’m only spending about 30 seconds stammering over 2-3 points than 5 minutes struggling through 20 items. I really try hard to prepare for these — confidence usually helps on the phone for me. Fortunately on the calls they can’t see me, so I can write things down on the paper I’m reading from — like “breathe!” — and other easier-to-say talking points.

In the next sentence Stuttering Student writes:

Other times I will just force myself to read because I think it’s helpful and healthy to face ones fears.

I’m a pretty voracious reader, but until we had kids, none of it was out loud. I never practiced reading in front of a mirror or anything like that.

These days I read out loud almost daily. Sure it’s only The Cat in the Hat and other easy children’s books, but it feels great. I can really control my voice, getting louder and softer, faster or slower. I can breathe. My children love it, and it builds a little confidence for me to use later in the day or the week. It even surprises me how fluent I can be considering not only how much I am thinking about fluency while I read, but the words themselves — d-words, k-words, w-words — those kinds of hard consonants always get me while talking.

Also: You’ll notice on this blog that I was talking about my life until high school and then stopped. Fear not. I shall continue in a few days with the college adventures. There’s probably a week’s worth of posts just talking about the transition to college.

Sunday Link Roundup

Hope everybody had a nice weekend. I had a good time going on a long bike ride which I’ll post on in a little while. Stuttering had a lot do with it … as it does with everything, I guess.

Anyway, one thing that I’d like to start doing is a link roundup. So here’s my first attempt. These are all worthy of a follow-up post (or 3) so those will come over the next few weeks. Some of these are slightly old (more than a week) but great nonetheless.

How People Who Stutter Thrive in Everyday Life

A nice write up by someone who stutters on the Stuttering Foundation’s annual gala.

Wahl writes, “The room we were in had an uplifting, comforting air to it. Everyone was welcoming. Everyone had a passion about the topic of stuttering whether it was conducting research on it, writing about it or simply working with others who stutter.

My heartbeat normally races in social settings but here, my heartbeat slowed. I felt at at peace in their company.”

Definitely looking forward to the NSA’s annual conference — I think it’ll be a similar experience for me.

Teaching Elementary Students

While this blog hasn’t been updated in a while, there’s a recent post regarding teaching children. I’ve got three kids of my own, and I don’t stutter as much when talking or reading to them.

Stuttering Stanley writes, ” Some have asked me how can one be a teacher…with a stutter? For me, it is because I mostly do not stutter when I am speaking in front of others, especially with children in a teaching capacity, and I also stutter much less in professional situations. If you want to know the reason why, I am afraid that I can’t tell you.”

Exactly.

The iceberg analogy of stuttering was recently posted on the Stuttering Foundation’s facebook page. Here is more information about it.

I’ll have more on this because it’s basically what this site is all about — how my own iceberg has formed over the years.

And lastly, the conference schedule is out!

Senior Year

In either junior or senior year, I started going to speech therapy again. This was with the school-provided therapist. She was different than before.

I don’t remember much of what we talked about — I think we probably practiced a bunch of words, said some sentences …

But what I do remember very, very well was that she taught me about needing air to talk. For anybody who doesn’t stutter, this is probably not earth-shattering. But for me, it was quite the revelation.

There are often times when I can’t say anything despite trying and trying. Not even a sound comes out. While this is going on, air is slowly escaping. And I need that air to speak. And the less of it there is, the less chance that I’ll be able to say anything. So what did I learn? She said to imagine a balloon that’s filled with air. Then, instead of just letting go and letting the air fly out, slowly let it come out. Hold the opening at a constant size. This is how to breathe, and this is going to help in speaking.

Does it?

Oh yes. It’s the single best thing I can do for my speaking. But I still stutter. Why? Because it’s hard to remember to breathe! No, seriously. I don’t practice this as much as I should. There are often times I’ll just rush into something, run out of air and then be stuck without a sound. Other times I think to myself — breathe — take a breath, a deep one, clear your thoughts, and slowly let out the words. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. To me talking faster (or wanting to talk faster) can sometimes result in more stuttering because of air flow issues, not the words themselves.

But of course since stuttering is stuttering, speaking slowly doesn’t always help. Even if I have the air, I’ve thought of a word I need to say, and then realize I can’t say it. I feel I can’t say it from a few words off.

Senior year definitely had my confidence peaking though. Not only had I learned about this technique, but my classes were easy, friends were great and college was just a few months off. And since a bunch of my friends were in the performing arts, I eventually gave in to peer pressure. By the end of the year, I was up on stage with my buddy doing “Who’s on First.” Two nights, and I didn’t stutter a bit.

Eleventh Grade

Confidence-wise, things were on an upward trajectory going into 11th grade. We had a different French teacher (now in French 4) but a lot of the class was on reading and writing and not so much on speaking. I can’t remember if it was French 4 or 5, but we had to memorize the French National Anthem and sing it as a quiz. We got more points if we did it in front of the class. Or we could choose to do it one-on-one with the teacher out in the hallway. I don’t think a lot of people were singing in front of the class, and I don’t stutter when I sing anyway.

What fun I did manage to have of course came from English class. Another book report!

Before the holiday break, we were told in English class that we’d have to do an oral book report. These would start right after getting back from the break. And would anybody like to volunteer to go first? My hand shot up. My friends looked at me like I was crazy. Yes, I’d like to go first. The reasoning was simple — get it over with. There would be two dozen people after me, and so if I stuttered and bumbled through it, nobody would remember.

Now then, did we remember what happened freshman year when we didn’t read the book? No? Outstanding. Let’s do that again. My book this time was Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. No idea what motivated this choice. (and no, I haven’t re-read this one either. It’s on my list, I swear). I do remember that I actually read about a quarter of this book. It was enjoyable. But again the procrastination/laziness busted in and messed everything up. And remember, I had an entire 2-week winter break to read this thing. And nothing else to do. We weren’t traveling or hosting anybody. At one point I told my brother about this assignment, and he replied simply, “why don’t you just read the book?” Right.

I got far enough into the book to find a quote about “being and becoming.” I knew this was important. But of course it’s a b-word. I’d have to go up and say “being.” And “becoming.” And well, this was going to be plenty unpleasant.

For the report itself, I got through it. I tried to use the marginal amount of confidence that I had. I stuttered through “being and becoming,” I made eye contact, I let my friends’ faces comfort me. I got it over with. When the grade came back, my teacher had written that it was an “honest” report.

On the one hand I think I did a decent enough job, and maybe that’s why it was honest. On the other, maybe it was because my voice was strained the entire time. Did I physically sound more honest? Was that the deal? Since I wasn’t talking about my stuttering with anybody, I wasn’t about to go into this discussion with my teacher. Move on.

During high school I started paying much more attention to how people spoke. (Especially since I had all these book reports to listen to.) As I sat in the back of English class to listen to my two dozen friends do their reports, I started to notice how much they said “um,” or how they raised their voice at the end of every sentence. I wondered if they were doing the same to me. Or, like my teacher, did they just think I was really nervous?

Tenth Grade

In tenth grade, two major things stand out.

One, I had a bunch of friends who were involved in the performing arts — theatre, choir, band. I had missed the boat on the latter two, but still had a chance to go up on stage and try to get involved in a play or musical. But I remember saying to myself, there’s no way I’m going to do that. There’s an audition, and not only did I not know to prepare for something like that (or, heck, how) but it seemed like everybody who was getting parts had their stuff together way more than me. Besides, the productions that were put on were top-notch — I’d only ruin something like that. I was happy enough to be involved in something like stage crew instead. I could still hang out with my friends, but nobody would have to hear me stutter.

The other thing was, of course, another book report for English class. Couldn’t they just make public speaking a class that I could choose not to take? No? Anyway, I actually read the book this time. It wasn’t a classic though. Something about a plane crash and the subsequent investigation. It was fiction, and it was pretty interesting. One of the main points our teacher stressed was making eye contact while we did our reports. I was feeling pretty good about this report, and I don’t remember stuttering much. What I do remember was jokingly asking everybody during the report if I had made eye contact with them. This brought on the necessarily levity to the situation. I got through it, but our teacher wasn’t really happy about me asking people.

Overall I think tenth grade was pretty easy as far as stuttering. I wasn’t going to speech therapy either. There weren’t any more oral reports, and I had a strong group of friends. My brother, who was a senior at this point, would be heading off to college the next year. He and I were getting closer because I realized I wouldn’t see him as much.

The summer after tenth grade I got my first job working retail. This was non-eventful; I didn’t have to cold-call anybody or talk much at all. Just ring people up at the register.

Confidence was rising nicely, but I still had a long way to go.

Birthday today. Welcome.

Welcome friends and soon-to-be friends and thanks for stopping by.

I didn’t make this site very public until I had a few days’ worth of posts down. I’m terrible at keeping up blogging, so I thought I should try things out myself before falling face flat in front of the world.

Anyway, I should have way more to say on the subject of stuttering since I’ve been doing it now (now, today!) for 28 years.

Poke around a bit and find out something you didn’t know. I’m in the middle of talking about how much fun I had in high school.

If you’re a friend who thought, “yes, I knew you stuttered, but I never thought it was a big deal,” please know that well, even if you do something a half hour a day for 28 years, it becomes a big deal.

The point of this blog is to connect with others who stutter and their friends and family.

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