|About the author: Laurent Lagarde is a French person who stutters. In 2009, he created his blog to share advices and inspiring stories about stuttering (www.goodbye-begaiement.fr). He translated and published the books Advice to Those Who Stutter and Sometimes I Just Stutter into French. He used to be a member of the board of the French “Association Parole Bégaiement” where he was in charge of press relations.He is a keynote speaker on stuttering and has spoken in events in France, Switzerland, Belgium and Canada. In 2016, he wrote his book Goodbye Bégaiement! Petit guide de voyage pour les aventuriers du bégaiement which will be soon available in English under the title 21 things I wish I had known about stuttering.|
English translation by Steve Cracknell
If you are the kind of person who complains that the world doesn’t understand stuttering I have bad news for you: the world has its own problems and doesn’t get out of bed in the morning trying to understand ours.
Earlier this year a Starbucks barista made fun of a client’s stuttering. This left some stutterers frothing at the mouth but I refuse to join in this social media witch-hunt. I don’t think the waiter was malicious. I don’t hate him. He simply wasn’t aware of the suffering a stutterer may feel. He didn’t know that many of us can’t see the funny side of it all.
- The world doesn’t understand that we can’t help stuttering.
- The world doesn’t understand that stuttering is not a sign of nervousness or stupidity.
- The world doesn’t understand the suffering caused by stuttering.
Except if someone explains…and nobody is better placed than we are to do so. It is our life, our experience, and we shouldn’t expect others to understand us spontaneously. It is our job and our responsibility to make stuttering understood. Of course, many associations do a fantastic job of raising awareness and educating the general public, but this doesn’t absolve us of this responsibility, if we are capable of handling it.
However, there is a prerequisite for successful teaching. We ourselves must have progressed sufficiently to understand two things:
- That stuttering is not a fault, and above all not our fault. So we must not feel guilty or ashamed.
- That it is only one facet of our personality. We are not defined by our stuttering: we have many other characteristics, qualities and talents.
If we haven’t taken this on board, how can others do so? If we don’t accept our stuttering, how can they? The outside world’s view of stuttering is a reflection of our own experience. When stuttering is accepted, it becomes acceptable. Mahatma Gandhi said: “be the change you wish to see in the world”. Since we want the world to change its attitude to stuttering, let’s start by changing ours.
In fact, changing the way you see and live with your stutter will have a beneficial impact on your state of mind and also on that of people you meet.
This is one of the most astonishing discoveries I have made. Other people’s reactions were not directly linked to my stuttering but to the way I coped with it and to the image I projected.
If I was embarrassed, they were too. On the other hand, if I looked them in the eye and made reassuring gestures everything went well. People’s reactions are merely the reflection of our own emotions. Try smiling at everyone you meet today. You will be surprised.
This is why it is essential to get rid of feelings of shame or guilt. Doing this will allow you to progress and will also have a positive effect on other people. You will be surprised to see the positive influence of your new way of living with your stutter.
Despite what you might think, openly acknowledging your stuttering in front of others is not very difficult. All you have to do is say things simply and just comment on the obvious.
For a start, it reassures the person you are talking to. In my case, people didn’t necessarily understand that I stuttered. They had the impression that I was highly stressed, or that I had a tic. When I was competing for a place at business school, I took an English oral test. Although I was passably good at the subject, I was almost incapable of bringing out a full sentence in front of the examiner. She took my numerous silences and repetitions as hesitations and a sign of lack of vocabulary. Of course I was marked down badly. As it happens the examiner’s husband was my English teacher. When I talked to him about the marks, I said “I don’t understand”, to which he replied “nor did she”.
The examiner didn’t realise that my hesitations and my difficulty in speaking English were merely due to stuttering. A few words from me would have been enough to clarify things and would have allowed both of us to relax.
Other people are not nasty nor stupid, merely ignorant, and their reactions stem from this ignorance.
- An examiner is able to tell the difference between stuttering and hesitation when you tell her that you have difficulty in getting certain words out.
- The teasing stops when a child does a presentation on stuttering for his class.
- The person at the other end of the phone understands better when you warn them that you stutter.
You need to be aware too that, for many people, stuttering is unnerving. They don’t know how to behave when faced with someone who stutters. Talking about it gives them the opportunity to ask questions. It also allows you to outline the techniques you have learnt and to be completely free to practise them.
Honestly, I don’t think I have ever encountered compassion when I have spoken of stuttering; interest, yes, but not compassion.
A lack of comprehension may even be transformed into a kind of admiration for the fact that you manage – despite everything – to overcome your stuttering and pursue your education or advance in your career.
This transparent approach is a valuable open sesame in situations we fear like oral exams, telephone calls or even job interviews.
A few years ago I applied for a job as marketing manager for a large company. At every interview – with the recruitment agency, then with the Human Resources Manager and finally with my future boss – I said that I stuttered. I knew full well that stuttering could return annoyingly in stressful situations, so I preferred to anticipate. It wasn’t a problem. They understood, thanked me for being frank and it relaxed the atmosphere. They could also see from my CV that it had not hindered my professional development, with the result that I was offered the job…although in the end I turned it down, but that’s another story.
Since then I have always applied this strategy, thus increasing my quota of happiness.
When I first met the woman who was to become my wife, rather than trying to hide and pretend to be ‘normal’, I took the risk of revealing my stutter straight away and explaining what living with it was like. It was certainly one of the most intelligent decisions of my life. After those few minutes spent explaining, I could be ‘natural’ and not fear being ‘unmasked’. And, at any rate, this introduction was much more original than: “are you still living with your parents?”
We are now married, and have three adorable children.
And I am living in a world that understands stuttering.
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