Speaking Truth to Stupid – Dale F Williams

About the Author: Dale F. Williams, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, BRS-FD is a Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders and Director of the Fluency Clinic at Florida Atlantic University. In addition, he is a consultant for Language Learning Intervention and Professional Speech Services.  A board-certified specialist in fluency, Dr. Williams served as Chair of the Specialty Board on Fluency Disorders from 2008 to 2010. He has coordinated the Boca Raton chapter of the National Stuttering Association since 1996. His publications include the books Stuttering Recovery: Personal and Empirical Perspectives (Psychology Press), Communication Sciences and Disorders: An Introduction to the Professions (Psychology Press), and Shining a Light on Stuttering: How One Man Used Comedy to Turn his Impairment into Applause (The Brainary), co-authored with comedian Jaik Campbell. Dr. Williams is currently working with a publisher on a series of stuttering workbooks.

Blair, Lynn, Taylor, Jan, and I were tasked with hiring a new assistant director. We had the field of candidates narrowed down to three, so it was time to discuss the interviews. We decided to begin that process by establishing a list of questions to ask each of them.

“Why duh-duh-do you want to work here?” was my mumbled suggestion.

“What, D?” asked Blair.

Since when do you call me D? I wondered.

“Why do you want to work here?” clarified Lynn.

“Good one!” exclaimed Taylor.

“Thanks,” said Lynn.

Why is Lynn taking credit for my question?

“Let’s ask about their political beliefs,” suggested Taylor.

What in the world for? It’s a management job.

“What in the world for?” asked Blair. “It’s a management job.”

“Yeah, but it’ll help us see if they fit in.”

Blair nodded. “OK, I can see that. Good idea. Jan?”

Good idea?

“I’d like to ask: If you were a cactus, what kind of cactus would you be?”

What on earth would that tell us? And who even knows different types of cactus, cactuses, cacti—whatever they’re called?

“OK,” mumbled Blair, as he took notes. “I guess that leaves me.”

So, the cactus question is a go?

“I think it would be helpful,“ continued Blair, “to find out if they’re married.”

You can’t ask that!

“I don’t think we can come right out and ask that,” said Lynn.

“Then let’s change it to: ‘How does your spouse feel about you working here?’ That’ll get the information we’re after.”


“Anything else?”

How about just finding out their job skills and professional goals? You know—stuff that’s relevant.

“If not, let’s review,” said Blair, apparently now in charge. “We have questions from D and Lynn that cover work-related topics…”

No, we don’t. We have one question that was suggested twice.

And apparently, I have a new nickname.

“…and we have Taylor’s, Jan’s, and mine that get at personal matters.”

“Let’s rate them by section,” suggested Lynn.

This ought to be good.

“How?” asked Blair.

“Well, if we rate all the answers from 1 to 10,” Lynn explained, “then we can have a work and personality score for each candidate.”

“Good. And since personality is more important. We should weight the scores accordingly.”

They’re already weighted, you idiots. One score has two questions—which is really the same one asked twice—and the other has three. And anyway, who decided personality is more important?

“That makes sense,” said Taylor. “Maybe make personality 70% of the total score.”

A few nods of agreement followed this idea.

“Seems like too big a gap,” argued Jan. “Should be more like 65% and…let’s say 50.”

Apparently, Jan doesn’t understand how percentages work.

“Let’s split the difference,” offered Blair. “Go with 60 personality and 40 work.”

How is that splitting anything? It’s what we already have…well, assuming we ask my question twice.

“Is everyone OK with 60 and 40?” Blair asked. For some reason, the other three raised their hands.

“OK, so how do we do that?” asked Blair. “Take the totals for the first two questions and multiply by forty, and the next three questions times sixty?“

That’s stupid on just so many levels…

“Sounds good to me,” answered Lynn. More nods.

“Do we need an equation?” Taylor asked suddenly.

Several seconds of silence greeted that query.

“Good question,” said Blair. “You’ve got us thinking here.”

About time something did.

Finally, Jan said, “I think I’d rather have some calculations to fall back on, so we can show the higher-ups what our standards are.”

That doesn’t even make any sense.

“We gotta have high standards,” agreed Lynn.

And, once again, heads were nodding.

This is insane! Nobody in this room knows what any of the five—which are really four—questions measure or whether personality really does serve us better than work answers. How are these “standards” in any sense of the word?

“Any more discussion or should we vote on the procedure?” asked Blair.

If I raised my hand, I would have to speak up. A lot. That means there would be many difficult words to struggle through. There was, after all, much that needed to be said about this plan.

Butterflies gathered in my stomach and my mouth tensed just thinking about it.

Should I speak?

Let me first consider this from the other side. Devil’s advocate and all that.

Would an assistant director chosen primarily on the basis of politics, marital status, and cactus preferences necessarily be bad?

When it comes right down to it, who’s to say?

Have you ever been the smartest person in the room, yet let a bunch of dummies have their way because you were afraid to speak?

Do you regret it as much as I do?

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Speaking Truth to Stupid – Dale F Williams — 16 Comments

  1. Wow, Dale, what a great illustration of what we’ll do or put up with just so that we don’t have to speak, and therefore, risk being judged.

    I bet a lot of people who stutter experience this regularly – at school and work. I remember so many times when I went along with “the stupid” because it was just easier to pretend that I had nothing to say. But then there are those times when I just couldn’t stand it and had to speak up, or I would have choked on “the stupid.”

    One time, two jobs ago, colleagues and I were planning the weekly celebration luncheon we had for newer students who had a reached a milestone in their program. We almost always had the same thing – delivery pizza – because the kids loved it and it was a treat to have something outside of the norm of the every day cafeteria food.

    This one time I’ll always remember because I had had enough of “the stupid.” A colleague had said, “Can we get something else for a change? We’re kind of getting sick of pizza.”

    I just looked at her for a second and then said to myself, “eff it, I have to say it.” So I took a breath to compose myself, not for fear that I would stutter, but for fear that she would not like my comment.

    I said, “Hey, you do know that this is for the kids, right? They like pizza, and for them, different kids each week, it’s their first time getting treated to ‘outside pizza.’ So let’s not forget, it’s about them, not you. So, pizza it is, OK?”

    She just looked at me like, “who died and made you boss?” because I rarely said anything. And here I had quietly, but most definitely, put her in her place. I think I even added, “If you don’t like pizza, you’re always welcome to bring your own lunch or buy your own in the cafeteria. This is free for us, so kind of take it or leave it.”

    We never had to have that conversation again.

    • That’s a good story, Pam. One interesting quote from it: “So I took a breath to compose myself, not for fear that I would stutter, but for fear that she would not like my comment.” I know there are times people don’t speak up for fear of being disfluent, but sometimes it has more to do with fear, intimidation, shyness—i.e., reasons divorced from stuttering. I’m sure there have been times of silence that have been blamed on stuttering (“I would have spoken up if I didn’t stutter”) when the actual cause was something else.

      As with most things stuttering (and human), it gets more complex the closer you examine it. But, hey, that’s what we’re doing here, right?

  2. As a graduate student in Speech-Language Pathology, this story really sticks out to me, as I am unable to understand the feelings of a person who stutters. Thank you for sharing your story and allowing me to gain a better depiction of what my clients go through on a situational basis. I was wondering about how often a child who stutters may feel this same way, and how I could best implement treatment time to target this stress and anxiety?

    • Thanks for the comments and question, Sara. Certainly, school-aged children and adolescents report fears of speaking up in class and elsewhere. Desensitization and speech attitude tasks really have to be a regular part of therapy. Sometimes it helps to think of the overall plan, i.e., it’s not so much goal 1 – speech techniques; goal 2 – open stuttering, goal 3 – secondary behaviors, and so forth, but rather goals that are parts of a larger whole. The speech techniques won’t work outside the treatment room if the client is not desensitized; if the attitudes about speech don’t improve, secondary behaviors will continue; etc.

  3. Hello Dale,

    This paper is really good demonstration of the difficulty we often face when wanting to speak up. I identify with the description of “If I raised my hand, I would have to speak up. A lot. That means there would be many difficult words to struggle through. ”

    I am sure that children who stutter go through very similar experiences; hesitating to speak up, or even avoiding speaking up, as the fear and the struggle overwhelm them.

    Thank you

  4. It’s interesting you mention that, Hannah. One of the chapters in the upcoming workbook is about avoidance and includes a scenario in which a teen asks for the bathroom pass every time the teacher announces an exercise that requires speaking in class. It is not my story, but one based on interviews with people who stutter. Many had their own versions of this story, some of which were strikingly similar.

  5. Yes, yes YES! Been there done that. In school, when I knew the answers, but didn’t want to raise my hand and had to listen to other replies that made no sense. At home when my older siblings gave each other “advice” that would get them into trouble. At work, when I had new ideas, but didn’t dare to speak up, but had to listen to others, whose ideas were impossible, but were met with applauds and shoulder claps. But it didn’t end there. When I became more speech-agresive and spoke my mind, I could get comments like “women cannot understand this” or “you’re too young to speak your mind”. And today, I’m old enough to be able to speak, stuttering and all, but not bothered by stupid people, and give them the fame and fortune, but w when the stupidity but walking away from the mess when the bubble bursts. 😉

    People (parents, teachers, employers) should learn to be more interested in the quiet once, because they might have the smartest answers. 😉

    Happy ISAD and keep talking!

    • Thanks, Anita, for the great response. I remember the “too young” condescension (though those days have passed and I’ll likely never hear it again). It seems like a vicious cycle: the more you’re quiet, the more people expect you to be and the harder it is to speak up. Maybe there’s a therapy activity in here somewhere: Record an activity in which different people are talking, then listen to it and note how many utterances were really not worth saying aloud.

  6. I am a graduate student in speech language pathology. I am interested in learning how a PWS prefers others around them to communicate. Can you explain how you would have preferred Blair to respond to you after your suggestion? Was Lyn’s clarification acceptable (other than her taking credit for the question!) Were you glad Lyn clarified or would have preferred for them to ask you to repeat your suggestion?

    Also I wonder why the committee members did not specifically ask you directly for your input. Do you think they responded this way in an attempt to “help” so you would not have to interject into the conversation? Do you see this behavior often in group settings?

  7. One of the most conflicting things to do is to decide whether or not one should speak up in a room full of people having a conversation that is going in a strange, or wrong direction (depending on one’s personality). I love how your story progressed by including your thoughts that you had during the conversation in real-time. Being talked over is a situation that I have often experienced and it can become frustrating very quickly.


  8. As an SLP graduate student, I am curious to learn more about therapy techniques that can address secondary behaviors. Desensitizing the client to stuttering requires delicacy and empathy from the SLP and for many young people this is not an easy process. Do you have any advice that can address the difficulty a PWS faces when wanting to speak up?

  9. I really appreciate you sharing this experience. I am an SLP graduate student and it can be hard to really understand the everyday struggles of someone who stutters. Being talked over is never easy, and would be especially frustrating in this situation. Do you have any advise for school age or high school aged children who stutter and fear speaking out and having to use lots of words like you felt in this situation?

  10. Thank you for sharing the experience. As a speech-language pathology student who is hoping to work with adults, what are some techniques that you believe that would be helpful for adults overcome the difficulties of choosing whether or not to speak up?

  11. Hi Dale,
    This was a really powerful example of what I’m sure is one of many similar experiences. I could completely feel your frustration while I was reading. Do you have any advice, particularly for younger people who stutter, for overcoming the fear and anxiety that comes with speaking in front of others?
    I look forward to hearing from you!

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