Just about everyone who stutters can tell you that they have feared sounds or words that give them special kinds of difficulty. Whether these fears are founded in the statistical probability of how often we stutter, using them in relation to other sounds or words is disputed. Regardless, these words and sounds have been built up in our minds to be difficult so we have become afraid of them. We begin to sweat when we think about having to say them, and we might even avoid the word or sound altogether. This is one of the many difficulties that co-exist with a stutter.
For me, my feared words have extended to a large variety of words in my vocabulary. However the word that was especially difficult for me this year was the word ‘mimosa’. Despite my deep fear of this word, I had to say it ALL THE TIME – far more often than I would have liked. Throughout this year, I worked as a server at a local restaurant/bar in Knoxville, TN, USA. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, I was scheduled to serve. I dreaded these shifts, trading and giving them up as often as I could. It wasn’t that they were bad shifts – I actually made great money on those mornings – it was because we had $4 mimosa specials. Our managers liked us to inform every guest of the daily specials and it helped us sell more of our products (which, in turn, increased our tips) so every morning I grudgingly (with a smile of course!) told my guests about our $4 mimosa specials. And every time I did that, I stuttered…. It was horrifying.
I am, what many experts in this field call, a covert person who stutters (PWS). Instead of stuttering openly, I do everything I can to avoid stuttering. A wise man once said,
“Stuttering is what you do when you’re trying not to stutter.” –Johnson
There is so much truth to that statement. The things that we do to avoid stuttering are probably far more distracting and effortful than stuttering itself. Also, using these “tricks” makes us more and more afraid of stuttering each time we try to avoid specific words and sounds. Instead we substitute words rather than using the words that we think will give us trouble. We talk around words that we think will be particularly difficult. We avoid talking altogether when we can’t think of a way to say what we want to say without relative fluency. We change our voices by adding accents or “playing a character”. The list of tricks that we come up with to help us be a little bit more fluent is endless. These tricks work for a while but pretty soon our brain catches on to what we’re doing and they stop working. We begin to stutter in those “character voices” oron words that were previously easier for us. Using these tricks and having to continuously change them is exhausting and it has given me a sense of evasiveness – I felt like I was pretending to be someone I was not and never saying exactly what I wanted to say. I have now found so much freedom in stuttering openly or even voluntarily. I know it sounds crazy but it’s kind of awesome! It enables me to say what I want to say, when I want to say it, and how I want to say it. The time that it takes me to say it may be longer than I, and my listener, would like, but that’s the reasonable tradeoff in order to achieve a sense of credibility and express my true self.
Naturally, every time I had to say that dreaded word ‘mimosa’ I would try to do something – anything – to avoid it. I couldn’t substitute it because there aren’t too many proper nouns that actually have synonyms (that’s the unfortunate problem with a specific language). I tried to talk around it but my guests either didn’t understand or thought that I was weird. Plus, the time that it takes to say “Would you like a delicious beverage that contains champagne and orange juice?” is just long and imprecise enough that most guests are no longer interested – there’s a lot of sales value lost in vague description. I tried to avoid the word altogether by either not saying it, prayed that my telepathy would kick in and they’d magically want one on their own, or pointed to the menu that detailed our specials. This was not ideal either, since most customers don’t really want to read at 11:00 AM on their weekend. Plus, utilizing both sight and speech (as many senses as possible) has benefits for selling any product, so that was lost every time that I tried to get by with just pointing at the menu. It didn’t work to simply change my voice because I was already doing that. All of my serving shift was spent using various character voices that I have adapted and mastered in order to help me be more fluent. It worked fairly well. By “well”, I simply mean in regards to fluency. This definitely does not imply that it was easier or better in any other way. Even my best character voice wouldn’t work for this word; I stuttered on it every time.
Stuttering on the word ‘mimosa’ wasn’t that bad in hindsight. In the moment, of course, it was the worst thing that could possibly be happening. I was filled with embarrassment, shame, resentment, anxiety, frustration, and so much more. Who knew a person could feel so much negativity just from saying one word? That is the struggle that so many other people who stutter face every time they talk. It wasn’t all negative though. This one consistent opportunity to stutter, enabled me to slowly become more open about my stuttering while serving – which was, at the time, one of my most difficult and feared situations to stutter in. The week before I quit serving, I decided to try stuttering in front of my tables. I wasn’t stuttering completely openly but I let it out quite a few times in front of each of my guests. The responses surprised me. Almost everyone that I served during these four shifts reacted very positively, just waiting and listening, with kindness and understanding. It gave me several opportunities to educate people about stuttering and they were nothing but compassionate and impressed to see me doing it very boldly in public. It was so encouraging. With each shift that I did it, it became easier and easier. I had a few confused looks and a couple of people who made fun of me but it was just out of misunderstanding. When one table was making fun of me particularly harshly, I told them that I stutter and, after that, they were much kinder and more understanding (and actually tipped really well). The biggest thing that surprised me from all of this is that my tips substantially increased! I went from getting 20-30% to getting 40% in tips every shift that I stuttered! I wished I had tried this earlier in my serving career!
The moral of this story, aside from encouraging people who stutter that they can make great tips as a waitress, is the freedom and unseen benefit of stuttering openly. Throughout my experiences with serving and, in many other situations in my life as well, I have learned that stuttering is not the most terrible thing that could happen. Although it may feel that way before, and during that moment of stuttering, the positives outweigh the negatives in the long term. Stuttering openly provides the person who stutters the ability to free themselves of the burden of trying so hard to avoid stuttering. It enables them to be genuine and authentic with the people they interact with, instead of pretending to be someone that they are not. We have a right to express ourselves when and how we want to – because we have voices. Our voices may not be perfect but they are ours and they are a part of us. There is so much empowerment that can be felt by embracing your real voice – stuttering and all. As demonstrated in this story, many people really don’t care; heck, they even thought more highly of me when I stuttered! Some people will react in a negative way, mostly out of ignorance, but they really don’t matter. We will never please everyone. It is fruitless to try. There is so much personal benefit that can be gained by stuttering openly that a few confused looks, or frustrating interactions, is a small cost to pay for such an amazing feeling of vulnerability, acceptance, and empowerment.
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