What I’m Stuttering on Lately

I had a chance last week to travel around the Kingdom a bit. I took my 8-year-old son.

When we got out of the airport in Medina, I needed to get us a taxi to the hotel. I knew what I wanted to pay, and the first cabbie quoted me a price that was way too high. I waved him off. I strode out to another few taxis and asked their price. Too high again. I said no. I started to walk off. He lowered. I said no again. We eventually agreed on a price (that was still too high, but whatever). I was just happy that I bargained a little bit and saved $13. I hate bargaining, and I’m usually the kind of person who just settles for whatever someone says. But I was feeling a lot more confident, and I had options, and I wanted to show my son how things are done.

I was staying with family at the hotel, so I didn’t have to check in. And when my son got hungry (and he’s particular about his food) family ordered room service, not me.

I stuttered off and on with my family members who I hadn’t seen in a while. Streaks of fluency punctuated by long agonizing moments of silence or a consonant being dragged out. I had a lot of catching up to do, and most of the stories I hadn’t told anybody else. So I was feeling my way around their adjectives, trying not to avoid.

I suppose I should mention the “standard” stuttering at the Starbucks at the Riyadh airport as well as on “diet coke” in the airplane. Some things I can always count on. But I didn’t go uncaffeinated!

Again with my son, and again with ordering food — we were at the food court, and he wanted a chicken sandwich at Burger King. I was tasked with getting some Pizza Hut. I didn’t want to (try) to say “crispy chicken.” So I told my son, look, here’s the money, order what you want (cleared it with me first) and I’m going to go order the pizza so we can get back to the room faster. We ended up doing that twice.

Yes, I avoided. But see, it’s complicated, right? I mean, he’s 8, and he’s gotta learn this stuff. How to order what he wants, how to deal with some money, and how to stand in line and collect the same food with a receipt. Right? Right? Lessons on growing up disguised as avoidance techniques. I guess covert behavior can be enabled by children.

Flying back home, I got into a conversation with a stranger while standing idly at a phone charging stand. He just began asking things, where we were going, where we were from. And it wasn’t too bad talking. Just an easy, slow-paced conversation without too much stress. And it annoyed me only because it made me wonder how many other casual conversations (you never know who you’re going to meet!) I’ve avoided because of stuttering.

Stuttering Cousins

I had been told this before, but had completely forgotten — I’m not the only one in my family who stutters. My cousin on my dad’s side stutters, and well, he just so happens to live an hour away from us here in Kingdom. I’m pretty bad (horrible) with keeping up with my cousins (they’re all over the place, and I’ve got a lot of them!)

Anyway, this cousin of mine came to visit us the other day. (I only found out that he’s here in Kingdom this past week) I’m sure I’d met him before, but had never talked to him before. We had other family over, so the issue of stuttering never came up. So this brings up a point I made a few days ago about calling people out. And I realized how complicated stuttering really is and the feelings associated with it. He could probably quickly tell that I stuttered. I did it openly. But I never asked him about his, or being covert, or how things are with speaking at work.

This cousin is slightly older than me, and I could see what he was doing/saying/not saying. Covert! So sneaky. He didn’t “stutter” in the more “well-known” public sense. And of course I didn’t know if he was avoiding (he probably was). I could see the pauses, the starts/stops. He did repeat a few words here and there as well.

It made me think back to how my life used to be. Before the NSA Conference, before this blog, before making the transition (partially) from covert to overt. All the tricks, the quiet, the easier words.

I think I really need to make a goal of talking more to this cousin in depth about his stuttering. I’m curious how things were back in Pakistan before he moved to the Kingdom, and how the people at work see him or talk to him. And how they react to the stuttering (if he ever breaks out of his covert shell). He’s also bilingual.

Before that I need to sit down and think of some decent questions. Questions that I wouldn’t mind answering myself. And at least get back into that old frame of mind. Obviously I know how personal this is, so I need to tread carefully.

Getting the name out

Aside: This evening a neighbor stopped by to drop some food off. I had talked to her on the phone before, but never met in person. As she stood at the door, she paused, trying to think of my name. I could feel that I wouldn’t stutter on my name, so, out it came! I felt slightly bad because I know she wanted to remember it, but hey, it’s a victory, right?

Stuttering Experimentation

So I posted a few days ago: How much do you consciously experiment with your stutter and speech? Do you do funny voices while alone? Speed things up? Slow things down? Does any of it help?

For me? I don’t do the funny voices or accents, but I do slow things down. This is very different than people simply saying, “you should slow down.” We get that crap all the time. This is a very conscious effort — monitoring your breathing, relaxing the shoulders, maintaining eye contact, stuttering but moving on, and controlling the pace.

I’ve found some success with this, but it’s difficult to remember all the time. Too often we jump into a conversation and are pinned to its pace. But why? Why not just take a breath?

I was in a meeting the other day and had to present some information. I was under the impression (thanks, fast-paced world!) that I needed to get it out as quickly as possible. So I did. And I stuttered. I wasn’t too fazed, but it was still annoying. Then what happened? Well, someone else had to give some information. And you know what? They’re fluent. And they took their sweet time. Why didn’t I just do that? Because I thought me, the most junior person there should hurry? That the meeting was already going long enough? That speaking slowly would somehow mean that I wasn’t sure of the information I’m presenting? Lesson learned.

I think I need to think of some kind of clever mnemonic before speaking. I’m sure there’s something out there already.

And what about talking faster? I tend to speak faster in the late evening after having a lot of diet coke (usually while at dinner with friends). And I do pretty well, fluency-wise. But I’m not sure if it’s the tired mixed with the caffeine, or being with friends, or the louder music, or what. During the day, it’s not something I’m convinced would work.

Listening to my Stutter

What would make all the feelings go away — fear, loathing, shame, embarrassment — if the stuttering never goes away? A perfect listener? What would I want?

The important thing to remember is that it’d have to be a blanket deal. I mean, everybody at once would have to do this, and I’d have to know that everybody is on board. So what would I want?

Patience. Don’t finish my sentence, no matter who you are. Don’t look at the person standing in line behind me. Don’t look away like I don’t know what I’m talking about. Don’t start on some weirdo-smile and try to stifle laughter. Don’t sigh heavily and look down at the ground.

Like I said yesterday, I know, deep down, that this isn’t “special treatment.” Because it’s how I treat everybody who I talk with. So I’d just want the same thing.

If I know that people are never going to react negatively to my stutter, then I create a positive feedback loop. The stuttering happens, I don’t feel bad, they don’t say anything, and I get my message across. That will give me the comfort and confidence to engage people in the future on speaking occasions.

Will we ever spend interaction after interaction with our perfect listener? Nope. If you can string two in a row, that’s quite an achievement. So we’re left with educating. Advertising. Sending links.

A few months ago the ice bucket challenge was going around. It was to raise awareness for ALS. Did you know anything about ALS before the ice bucket challenge? I didn’t know a thing. A cycling buddy explained it all to me on a ride during the height of the challenge. Do we need to do something similar with stuttering? Maybe. Maybe not. The King’s Speech certainly helped when it came out, but we have to keep on reminding people. Because we have to keep on talking. Every day.

Even though the world won’t wake up tomorrow and become perfect listeners, we can work toward surrounding ourselves with them. We can slowly make inroads to our family, friends, and coworkers. Our instances of embarrassment and fear will lessen. We can come out more if we’ve been covert. We can brush off a stumble here and there.

Finishing my Stuttering

I’ve been wanting to comment on this HuffPo article that’s been out for a while on why you shouldn’t finish the sentence of a person who stutters.

I wholeheartedly agree with everything that’s said, particularly this part:

While I appreciate the effort, sometimes it makes me feel a bit worse, which seems counterintuitive. Instead of feeling relieved that they jumped in and played superhero and saved the day, I feel a sense of unease, of discomfort. I understand that they are trying to help, but even though they think they’re being supportive by finishing a sentence for me — or for anyone else who stutters — it doesn’t help.

I think though that it’s really audience-dependant. On the one hand, no, I don’t want you finishing my sentences. On the other, if you’re a senior person at my company, and you decide to finish a word of mine here and there, I’m not going to jump down your throat about it. That’s somewhat career-limiting. I’ve been humiliated by my stuttering before, so I know the drill.

(Aside: I stuttered really hard this morning with a very senior guy at work. He finished a word or two. I stuttered through a whole conversation with him — that I had initiated. That I could have just summarized in an e-mail. I felt rushed, I felt foolish at times, I felt myself covered in sweat. But … I did dive in on my own. So despite the heavy stuttering and the occasional finished word, I’d call it a win.)

It’s also interesting here in Saudi where English isn’t everybody’s native language. So occasionally I’ll be in a meeting, and one non-native English speaker will finish another’s sentence (both are fluent). The idea is that they might just need a little nudge with the words, and they just want to get on with it. I suppose there’s a chance that (based on my appearance) I might not be a non-native English speaker as well.

On another practical note, when you finish my sentence, it also disrupts the general flow. I was about to say the word (no, really) and then was going to pause, take a breath, and … but you finished. So now there’s this gap, and I’m not ready for it. So I try to say a word, but I’ve forgotten to take a breath. So I’m stuck, there’s an awkward silence, you’re not focusing on me, I’m losing the other person listening, I’m fumbling for another word, you’re back to this guessing game, I’m getting dismayed, and …

The other question is — am I allowed to finish a word or sentence of someone who’s fluent? Does that set a precedence? Do people even notice those things? Should I just not do that at all and be patient instead? It’s a tricky game.

I think this article is great in that it presents this idea to people who know nothing about it. So if they hear someone stuttering, they’ll say, ok, I’ll just wait and listen. What I’d like to know though is really, how would you even broach the subject? Like at work? Do you tell your whole department? A few people here and there when it comes up? What do you say?

You know what stuttering does to your head? It makes you think things like: “If I send them this article, I almost feel like I’m asking for special treatment.”

Look, I know fundamentally that I’m not asking for special treatment. I’m only asking for patience and understanding. But sometimes that covert me manages to pop his head up and take over a few relationships. Changing that will take time.

Smoothing out the posting schedule

In an effort to smooth things out a bit here, I think I ought to tell you what’s on the docket for this week. That’ll keep me honest with regards to posting.

1. That Huffington Post article about not finishing sentences. I wonder if those of us who stutter finish the sentences of fluent people? And what about when English isn’t the first language?

2. What does your perfect listener do? We all dread opening our mouths when it comes to talking to strangers, so what would you really like? Do you just want them to be patient, or do you want them to know more about stuttering itself?

3. How much do you consciously experiment with your stutter and speech? Do you do funny voices while alone? Speed things up? Slow things down? Does any of it help?

4. What I’m stuttering on lately

5. Link roundup! I’m getting way behind on this …

Getting older and stuttering

What I’ve been seeing a lot on Facebook lately is a lot of younger people who stutter worrying a lot about their future.

For the record, I was too naive to realize that stuttering would be a lifelong problem. Being covert for such a long time, I figured I could just keep on doing it, and everything would be fine.

What I’d say to a younger person who stutters is that it can get better with the right attitude change. That’s what takes a long time.

The basis for the change is simple and can be spelled out in three aspects:

1. The people who matter don’t care that you stutter
2. The only way to know if something horrid is going to happen is to open your mouth
3. The horrid consequences that you foresee happening when you stutter don’t happen

I’ve mentioned these things before.

What happens as you age is that you simply have more data. You talk more. You see what happens when you stutter. You see how people react. Over months and months and years and years, you see that at the end of the day, it’s us who need to open our mouths again and again and not be afraid of what happens.

We also get more patient as we age. We listen more. We consider our words carefully, and find out if we stutter on one or two (instead of avoiding them) our message becomes more clear. Our listener becomes better engaged and informed. A trust develops amongst our friends.

Is it an overnight process? Heavens no. Does it require work? Yes. Does that mean sitting in your room by yourself for hours on end reading out loud? Maybe. Does it mean not hesitating to open your mouth when you want to say something? Definitely.

Your Stuttering first impression

We all grow up hearing these two things:

“You only get one chance to make a first impression.”


“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

Let’s talk about how these two contradict each other. It’s ridiculous, really. I think this idea of a first impression being so important is a bunch of crap. Try this out — what do you remember about the first time you met your best friend? You know, the one who you’ve been friends with since you were like, 12? The one you met in English class who you still talk to every day? The one who doesn’t care what you look like because they can just as easily open up the high school yearbook for a few laughs?

Do you remember that first encounter? No? I didn’t think so.

Oh, you do? And was it good? Ok, fine. Was it bad? Really? But you’re still friends, right?


Think about work. You had an interview. You worried, prepared, stuttered. You got the job, you joined the team. You messed up a little on your first assignment. People grumbled. But ultimately, did they care? No. They hired you for a reason. They needed your help. Your talent. They gave you a little slack on that first task, and you learned something to improve on for the next go-around.

And what about being on the other side? The one giving the interview? A candidate comes in, no resume in hand, coffee-stained shirt, 15 minutes late, cell phone ringing. Are you not going to hire this person based on that? You’re not going to ask them to talk about themselves, talk about their experience, and what they can do to help you? You’re not going to find out they know a lot more than what you remembered from looking at their resume for five seconds?

The point is that we should try to focus on the message, not the delivery. We shouldn’t worry about the delivery. If the person is worth talking to, then they won’t care how you deliver. They want to engage with you, want to listen to you. And like your best friend, they’ll still be listening 23 years later.

Getting called out

Have you ever gotten called out for your stutter? I mean in a sympathetic way? By someone who understands what stuttering is?

I’m not sure getting laughed at or cut off or ignored is really being called out. That’s just the other person displaying bad or ignorant behavior.

I was asked by someone just two years ago. It was a senior person at my company. He asked me a little about it, but I think part of the point was to convey that he had had a stutter as well. And that he still stumbled (but not really) on some words. I’m not convinced it was stuttering, and maybe it was just a way to make a connection with me. But it was a little awkward because, well, how much do you share? What do you say, “well, listen, there’s the one-minute version of my life-long angst, and then there’s this blog that I’ve got. If you printed out all the posts, it’s nearly 75,000 words. Should we start there then?”

On the other side, as someone who stutters, have you ever called out someone else who stutters? And no, I don’t mean when you knew full well that they did but just wanted to connect. More of a “I know you’re being covert …” kind of a deal.

I’ve never done this. I’m pretty convinced that I’ve never met anybody else who stutters (other than last year at the conference, of course). And if I have, then man, they were even better at being covert than me!

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