|About the author: Christopher Constantino, CCC-SLP, is a person who stutters living in Memphis, Tennessee. He is PhD candidate at the University of Memphis, speech language pathologist at Shelby County Schools, StutterTalk cohost, and chapter leader of the Memphis NSA chapter. His research interests include the production of disability, counseling, and the facilitation of agency. Chris enjoys riding his bicycle.|
The ability to foster stuttering pride comes down to one very simple question: do we gain anything from stuttering? Instead of saying that stuttering is OK, can we bring ourselves to say that stuttering is good or advantageous? What experiences do we have access to that fluent people do not? What would we lose by ceasing to stutter? No doubt, this is a hard project. All our lives society has taught us that stuttering is worse than fluency. Stuttering is defined as a disordered form of fluent speech, speech that fails to achieve some predetermined percentage of fluent syllables. However, this is a false dichotomy. Yes, fluency is more common. Yes, stuttering can be hard. Blocking is tough. Getting stuck is frustrating. Nevertheless, stuttering is so much more that our disfluencies. Professionals and the general public talk about our speech as lacking fluency; instead, we should talk about our speech as gaining stutters. Until we have a reason to stutter, until we are able to say that we choose to stutter freely and openly because it benefits us, our speech will always be defined as the negative opposite of fluency.
Although this may be difficult, it is not as ridiculous as it sounds. We start by insisting that the difference between stuttered speech and fluent speech is qualitative, not quantitative. Fluent speech is not the normal form of speech from which stuttering detracts. Stuttering is not merely a less fluent or more disfluent way of communicating. It is an entirely different way of communicating. The difference between stuttering and fluency is not a matter of quantity of disfluency; rather it is in the quality of experience. The experience of stuttering, the effort, the unpredictability, the movement of tongue and lips, the flood of memories, the quickening of pulse, this is all so much more than part-word repetition, prolongations, and blocks. The experiences we have while stuttering are something fluent speakers do not have access to and I am glad to have them. Stuttering adds to our speech.
What strikes me about our stuttering is its ability to disrupt the expected flow of a conversation. Much of human communication is routine and automatic. People speak without actually saying anything, they engage in a ritualized exchange of mundane phrases in a rehearsed rhythm that requires little thought. Speaking is used to keep others at a distance rather than to bring us closer together. Heuristic phrases and trite clichés turn potentially new and exciting situations into familiar and rehearsed routines. We would rather act out a routine, “Hi, how are you,” than actually speak to someone.
Luckily for us, stuttering shatters this ritual. The irregular rhythms of our speech allow for open and honest communication unburdened by meaningless, stereotyped phrases. When people speak to us, it breaks them out of their routine. They cannot anticipate our responses. They hear our words more clearly than the words of fluent speakers because they are less predictable. Our stuttering introduces novelty and excitement into conversations making them instantly more interesting and memorable for our speaking partners. This is something we gain by stuttering.
The unexpectedness of stuttering forces both listener and speaker into a space of trust and vulnerability. They must both give up control of the situation. The person speaking does not know when and for how long they will stutter. Likewise, the person listening does not know when to expect a stutter. In order for both people to communicate, they must trust one another. This ability to make normal, everyday conversations intimate and sincere is unavailable to the fluent speaker. While talking about the weather, we bare our souls. While stuttering on our names during a handshake, we change an introduction into an intimate moment of vulnerability – the handshake becomes a hug. Fluent speakers do not have access to that. Just by saying hello, we deeply connect with another person.
Every moment of stuttering is an exercise in trust, a verbal trust fall. We are asking the person we are speaking with to catch us. When they do, we build trust and strengthen the relationship. Luckily, if they happen to let us fall, we do not hit the ground. We may get embarrassed, but we will not get hurt. Vulnerability does not come without risks. In order to be truly vulnerable we must take a chance. Fortunately, with stuttering the rewards greatly outweigh the risks. The risk of stuttering and not being listened to is a funny look. The reward of stuttering and being heard is a deeply intimate connection with another human being. I encourage us to take this risk.
Our stuttered words carry more weight than our fluent words. Their irregular rhythm makes them memorable. Our pauses, hesitations, and silences carry semantic weight; they are meaningful and purposeful. They say, “I am not perfect.” They say, “I take risks.” They say, “I trust you”. They say, “Uncertainty is ok”. The silence of stuttering should not be viewed, “as a lack, an absence, or negation but rather as an important and even vital aspect of the fabric of discourse” (Mazzei, 2007, p. xii). This silence can be both humbling and strong. This silence is not simply what happens when we stop talking. It has a function. There is a beauty in this silence. It is the beauty of words not yet spoken. The beauty of an unsung song, a not yet painted picture, “the all-permeating silence of unwritten poetry” (Picard, 2002, p. 68). In the silence of our stuttering is the potential of what is yet to come.
We express “as much by what is between words as by the words themselves” (Merleau-Ponty, 1960/1964, p. 45). By what we do not and cannot readily say, as by what we say. This silence gives the words we do manage to say more meaning, it acts as the negative space around which our words are shown in stark relief. Our silence is “pregnant with what is to be said but cannot be said, just yet” (Mazzei, 2007, p. 35). To stutter is to impregnate our pauses with meaning and to give our words greater value. Fluent speakers do not have access to this. This is something we gain by stuttering.
All we have to do to make a profoundly humble and vulnerable connection with someone else is to speak and to stutter. Our stuttering is an open door, an invitation for others to relate to us in ways they would be unable to if we did not stutter. Our stutters allow us to build deeper and more personal connections than we would be able to as fluent speakers.
I have had many deeply personal conversations with other people because my stuttering allowed them to feel comfortable talking with me. They have explicitly told me that my stuttering has made me approachable and relatable. Listening to me share my stutter with them allows them the space to share personal stories of their own with me. I once met a man with a family history of a certain mental disorder who was terrified he may have it as well. He said he overanalyzes every odd or paranoid thought he has, ever vigilant of signs and symptoms. He told me that because I stutter maybe I understand what it is like to grapple with a stigmatized disorder. We talked for hours and I made a connection I would never have made had I been fluent.
People have related my stuttering to their own struggles with race, sexuality, and gender. On a plane flight, a woman sitting next to me heard me stutter to the flight attendant. She asked me what stuttering was like and then shared with me some of her own tribulations. I have had people share intimate details of their lives without having to prompt or ask them. They hear me stutter and they know it is safe to open up and be vulnerable. I have come to know people better than I ever could have as a fluent speaker.
Perhaps most of all, if I did not stutter, I would not have had the pleasure of meeting all the lovely people in the stuttering community. The conversations I have at conferences and support group meetings change my life in profound ways. I have been to very few places where I have felt the kind of love that I feel around other people who stutter. What we have in our communities is special. It is valuable. My relationships with my stuttering friends make me a better person. Stuttering has given me friendships, it has given me opportunities, and it has brought me to places I never thought I would be.
Our stuttering is beautiful and powerful. We must encourage each other to keep on talking in spite of our difficulties. One percent of the population stutters. That is a lot of people. Yet we hear very little stuttering in our everyday lives. That is not because people who stutter are not out there, it is because the people who stutter who are out there are not talking. Every time we stutter, we make it a safer place for those people to talk. Every time we stutter, we show someone else what stuttering sounds like. Every time we stutter, we show someone how smart and funny people who stutter are. Every time we stutter, we make it easy for another person to stutter.
Stuttering pride means demanding recognition for what our voices add to the conversation not for what they lack. However, only when we come to value stuttering will our stuttering pride position become coherent. Other people will not value our stuttering if we cannot value it ourselves. Every time we stutter with a smile, we help spread our message. This will not be easy. Nevertheless, we assuage some of the difficulty when we are able to define what we gain from stuttering. Our stuttering offers us a richness of experience that we would be missing out on should we speak fluently. Our stuttering allows us to be vulnerable and intimate in ways that fluent people cannot be. It allows us to build relationships and communicate in ways that fluent people cannot communicate. Stuttering impregnates our silences with meaning and makes are words stand out. Stuttering makes our voices unique and one of a kind. Stuttering enhances communication and friendship in ways unavailable to the fluent speaker. What does your stuttering do for you?
 I am indebted to Dr. Beth Bienvenu (personal communication, May 15th, 2016) of the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Deaf community (Bauman & Murray, 2014; Bauman & Murray, 2009) for the succinct phrasing of “Stuttering Gain”
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