Stuttersplaining – Nina G

About the Author: By night Nina G is a comedian performing at comedy clubs and keynote speaker. By day she is a counselor at a California community college where she works with student with disabilities. In 2015 she premiered her one person show Going Beyond Inspirational and produced the first ever comedy compilation album of all comedians with disability aptly titled Disabled Comedy Only. Her TEDx Talk, The Everyday Ally, is helping to teach people without disabilities to be effective allies.  Summer 2019 Nina will release her second book Stutterer Interrupted: The Making of a Stuttering Stand Up Comedian.  Learn more about Nina G at www.NinaGcomedian.com.

Excerpt from the upcoming book Stutterer Interrupted: The Making of a Stuttering Stand Up ComedianModified for the ISAD Online Conference.


I have noticed that a large segment of the non-disabled population possess a miraculous superpower: whenever they are in the presence of someone with a disability, they are suddenly endowed with a PhD in that person’s condition.

People who stutter are no less immune to the harassment of these self-appointed experts.  Consider the following anecdote: I was with my friend Michelle, having a casual (and private) conversation at Starbucks.  Michelle has rheumatoid arthritis and uses a wheelchair.  I, of course, was stuttering up a storm.  So when this young guy started looking over at us, I knew it had to be for one of two reasons: either we are both so incredibly hot that he can’t keep his eyes off us or he’s itching to share a secret cure to one of our conditions.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be the latter.

He approached us in an awkward manner and began his spiel.  Odds were 50-50 in determining whether me or Michelle would be the subject of his lecture.  I guess it was my lucky day as he dispensed with the free elocution lessons.  His advice was your typical, run-of-the-mill fare: “just breathe,” “slow down and think about what you are saying,” that sort of thing.  When I thanked him for the free advice with an implied “now get out of my face,” he lingered.  Maybe he was waiting for me to bow down and wash his feet with my hair in humble gratitude.  Once we got rid of him, Michelle exclaimed, “Oh my God!  For once I wasn’t the one getting advice!”  Michelle spent most of her time around able-bodied people so she was used to being the odd one out.  Never before did someone practically climb over her wheelchair to comment on someone else’s disability.  What we both witnessed that day is a phenomenon I like to call stuttersplaining.

Stuttersplaining occurs when someone who has never personally experienced stuttering themselves decides to give a lecture about it to someone who has.  Somehow, the person stuttering hasn’t thought of things like “slow down and breathe.”  We needed someone’s guidance to think up that one!

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want people to be afraid to talk about stuttering.  We need to talk about it to remove social stigma and misinformation.  But here’s the thing – unless I bring up the issue of my stuttering, I would like to stick to the discussion at hand and not derail into unnecessary, awkward conversations.  In other words, if I want advice on taking psychedelic mushrooms to cure my stutter, I will ask for it!

Consider this an open guide to stuttersplaining.  Although it takes on many varieties, the underlying issue is always the same.  As you read through the following examples, the non-stutterer might imagine themselves having to deal with these situations on a regular basis.

The TV Told Me

Stuttersplainers often like to back up their advice with citations.  These include, “I was watching Dr. Oz…”, “Did you see on Oprah…”, “I have a friend who…”, and other classic hits.  When a stutterer hears these words, we instinctively clench our orifices and brace for the incoming lecture on how we can be cured of our disfluencies.  A graduate student once came up to me after I had just finished leading a workshop on disability awareness.  His opener: “So I was watching NPR…” (how do you watch National Public Radio?)  He went on to explain that, “stutterers don’t stutter when they talk to animals so could there be something there with that?”  He hypothesized how dogs might be used to help stutterers become more fluent and perhaps resolve their stuttering entirely.  In my most nurturing and educational manner, I attempted to guide him on what quality people who stutter like best about animals; they shut up and let us talk.  Believe it or not, I’ve never had a dog try to finish my sentence for me.

Hippies and Religious Zealots

 When the media isn’t triggering people to fix us, you can always count on good old religion.  So many times people with disabilities encounter strangers wanting to lay hands on them and pray for a cure that will be a manifestation of God’s greatness.  Regarding stuttering, I never understood why God would give me a stutter only to take it away through the power of some shouting guy’s sweaty palms.  This guy is supposed to help me with my speech?  He’s speaking in tongues!

Whenever someone brings up the topic of divine healing, I like to point out that Moses stuttered.  Instead of curing him of his stutter, God suggested that Moses have his brother Aaron speak for him – the earliest Judeo-Christian example of an accommodation!  So, if someone ever tries to pray for your fluency, you can tell them: “God didn’t cure Moses’ stutter; he’s probably not worried about mine.”  And yes, I have totally said that to people.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where people claim to be “spiritual” instead of religious.  I might not have God’s healing hands laid on me, but plenty of New Age hippies, yuppies, and yippies have their own magical ideas about how to fix a stutter.  In my case it came from a massage therapist in Calistoga, land of the hot spring and mud bath.  My family has been going there for generations.  Before it was converted into a resort town for the Whole Foods crowd, Calistoga used to be a quaint vacation spot favored by working class Italians and Eastern European Jews in Northern California.  I can still hear the old women yelling at me and my brother for splashing in the pool, afraid that it would mess up their bouffant hair-dos.

As I got older and more comfortable with the idea of being touched by a stranger, I started availing myself of the town’s many massage therapists.  When they asked what parts of my body needed special attention, I would always request my jaw.  It’s easily my most overworked muscle (too bad I can’t get the same tone in my stomach or butt cheeks!)  One massage therapist—let’s call her Hippy Dippy Pippy—asked if I suffered from TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder).  I explained that I stutter and it causes a lot of tension in my jaw area.  Pippy then started to offer her own whimsical advice on stuttering.  Hoping her rambles would result in extra massage time, I decided to indulge her.  About halfway through the dissertation, Pippy asked, “do you stutter when you sing?”

“Nope,” I said, “singing engages a different part of the brain that isn’t affected by stuttering.”

“Well, singing is good for the soul,” Pippy said, glossing over my biological explanation of my own disability.  “You need to sing!  That will help you!”

Okay?  If singing cures stuttering because it’s good for the soul, then I guess I stutter because there’s something wrong with my soul.  Did I do something in a past life to make me talk like this?  Mel Tillis and Bill Withers both stutter and they are singers.  Their souls must be totally out of whack because not even their beautiful voices and lyrics make them fluent when they speak. Oh, their tarnished souls!

The unsolicited advice of strangers might seem well-meaning on the surface, but there’s a subtle hostility underneath.  Their desire to fix us implies that we are broken, that the way we talk isn’t acceptable and needs to go away.  Whether it’s someone telling my friend to put a live canary in his mouth (true story!), or American Idol judges telling a stuttering contestant to “just sing instead of talk,” these suggestions will never be helpful.  If someone wants quack advice on how to get rid of a stutter, they’re more than entitled to seek it out… but unless they specifically ask you for help, please keep your remedies to yourself.  Stuttering is a complex speaking style and is impacted by many factors.  If there is ever a “cure” for stuttering, it’s not going to be discovered in the course of five minutes chatting on a massage table.  And even if someone is a PhD brain scientist who knows what they’re talking about, that doesn’t make their unsolicited advice any less rude.  We don’t let physicians walk up to random people and tell them they’re overweight; why should I have to endure that kind of treatment from an off-duty speech therapist?

Magical Sex

One Sunday morning I was promoting one of my comedy shows on an AM radio station. During the program, a listener called in and explained how someone she knew “found true love and doesn’t stutter anymore.”  Me and my friend who produced the segment, Valerie, couldn’t stop laughing about it afterwards.  That poor lady was all grown up and still seeing the world through Disney cartoon logic.  Who knew that this whole time I’ve been a passive Stuttering Beauty waiting for the kiss to wake me up from my dysfluent speech coma?

The woman who called the radio station is far from alone; a surprising number of people believe that stuttering is caused by lack of romantic and sometimes sexual fulfillment.

Sometimes the cure for stuttering comes in more sexualized ways.

My friend (let’s call him Virgil) is a young man who stutters.  A few years ago we were on a long car ride and our conversation turned to relationships, which turned to me oversharing details about my previous relationships, which turned to me talking about sex in a frank and transparent manner because I am a liberated woman who survived Catholic school and that’s how I roll.  My transparency must have created a safe atmosphere because Virgil felt comfortable telling me he was a virgin.  Not because of religion or any kind of sexual hang-up; it just hadn’t happened yet.  He had been on several dates and probably could have lost his virginity just to get it over with, but he didn’t want that.  He was only 23 and still had plenty of time.

As we talked about it more, Virgil told me something else: “My therapist says that once I have sex, I’ll stop stuttering.”

I suppressed the urge to tell Virgil what I thought of his therapist and instead followed up with a neutral question (the kind good therapists are supposed to use): “how do you feel about that?”  Virgil responded that he knew it was B.S., but his therapist helped him in other ways before so he let it slide.  I responded, “Good because you know that’s messed up, right?”

I don’t know where Virgil’s therapist got the absurd idea that virginity causes stuttering but I would bet my money it was the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.  It wouldn’t be the first time a mental health professional ignored scientific literature and based their opinion on a movie.  A different friend once had a therapist tell her that stuttering is caused by emotional trauma because “that’s what they said in The King’s Speech.”  That’s like a marine biologist basing all their knowledge on Jaws. Actually, it’s a dumber conclusion because the characters in The King’s Speech are working with 1930s science.  At least Jaws happened in the 70s.  Anyway, back to the story.

Over the next couple weeks, Virgil and I joked about what his therapist said.  Still, laughing about it didn’t make it any easier for me to accept.  For most people, having sex for the first time is already an overload of expectations, anxieties, and emotions… imagine having someone put the cure for stuttering on top of all that!  It made me angry to the point that I was ready to “devirginize” Virgil myself just to prove the therapist wrong, but the more rational side of me prevailed.

Virgil eventually started dating a woman and they seemed perfect for each other!  As they grew closer and closer I knew nature would take its course.  Then, one morning, I got the text.

“I still stutter.”

I immediately texted back.

“Keep trying for a cure! ;-)”

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Comments

Stuttersplaining – Nina G — 37 Comments

  1. Thanks for stopping by to read my preview chapter. I would love to hear your thoughts on what people say to you and ways you deal with it. I think us coping with these comments is important and something we can learn from one another.

    • Hi Nina,

      Your post is funny, clever and eye-opening. What you describe is the generalized tendency of the (American) society to single out people’s differences (seen as negative traits, no matter what) and offer a “quick fix” through unsolicited advice. Stuttering is still mainly perceived as a problem to solve – so there they are, telling you how you can “get better”. I feel for all those who have to endure such unwanted attention. Plus, some of the advice for curing stuttering you’ve received are plain stupid – really people, how can you believe that???

      I particularly agree with you when you point out that the unsolicited advice, presented as a self-less act of kindness and genuine desire to help, actually hides a hostile urge to fix what appears broken. Do you think, one day, stuttering could be considered simply a difference and not a disorder? Maybe a person’s peculiar way of talking, like an accent or a cadence?

      Sara
      Grad student SLP
      Colorado

  2. Hi Nina! This is just great. I had a few spit-takes as I drank my coffee while reading. I love the term “stuttersplaining” since it describes the experience so well.

    I think so much of this goes back to a fundamental misunderstanding about what the experience of stuttering is like. Someone who has never experienced it might assume that fluency = not stuttering, or that if we would only try harder we wouldn’t stutter. I’ve had SLPs come up to me and say, “Oh, have you tried X, Y, or Z fluency strategy?” No, never. Never heard of that (sarcasm). /facepalm

    • Spit takes are the highest form of comedy praise! Thank you! So glad it resonated with you. Hopefully we can educate more fluent people that maybe they don’t have the answers to our life long speech patterns!

      • I thought that is was hilarious how you said “believe it or not, I’ve never had a dog try to finish my sentence for me”. I totally understand what you mean. I do not have a stutter but I have a special needs sister and strangers are always telling us what we can do to help her and sometimes they are like “have you taken her to a doctor?” and I just want to sarcastically go “what? a doctor? wow! I never thought of that!”.

  3. Thank you for sharing an excerpt from your upcoming book (I intend to buy a copy once it is out). As an old, nonstuttering, highly disfluent SLP, I always appreciate further insights into the experience of stuttering. I spend an appreciable amount of time on the speaker’s experience of stuttering when I teach my fluency disorders class. Hopefully, future SLPs will take notice and listen to the true experts on stuttering!

    • Thank you so much for your comments Charlie. I always like to remind people who stutter that a common measure for expertise is 10,000 hour of doing that thing. Most of us who stutter are WAAAAAAYYYYY beyond that. I really appreciate you saying that we are the experts and that SLPs should learn from us. Therapies–of all kinds–should be collaborative. Thank you so much for stressing that the learning goes both ways!

  4. I so recognize everything. I was told to see people as animals, as I don’t stutter with animals. Or to always be angry, as… well you get it. I was also told to delete the first letter of each word. *s *f *at *ould *elp… or make it easier for people to understand me. And if sex was the cure, get me a time machine to the 60s! 😉 But yes, I had an interview with a national magazine some years ago about stuttering. But of course, as this was a lady’s magazine, they loved the story of me moving to Sweden after falling in love. After hours of severe stuttering, tics and the hickups (from stuttering), they finally left. Imagine my surprise when the magazine came out with the header “Love stopped Anita from stuttering”.

    I so want your book, girl! I not only love your many stories, I so love your attitude, which you project in your book and on stage. You’re all that. ANd if you every find a way to become fluent: DON’T! Happy ISAD and keep talking. See you next year! 😉

    • I missed out on the 60’s–let me know about that whole time machine thing!!

      OMG! Love stopped your stuttering?! Come on! In the actual book coming out you will read more along these lines–a bit more salacious ;-).

      Thanks for commenting and looking foward to seeing you in Iceland <3!

  5. Hi Nina! I enjoyed your post. Based on your experiences, what would you tell to children who stutter?

    • Funny you should ask! I was just part of a profile on http://voiceunearthed.com/project/comedian-professional-speaker-author-nina-g/
      and here is what I said:
      “My message to youth who stutter: Sometimes you spend a lot of time in therapy. When I was a kid because of stuttering and learning disabilities it felt like I was constantly in a therapist or tutor’s office getting help. Even though as a person who stutters it is important to remember that you can be a good communicator who stutters. I have met plenty of people who are fluent who are awful communicators and stutterers who are excellent ones. I want youth to know that you are more than your speech. You need to spend time developing your passions and strengths. Figure out what you are good at and do it!”

      I also think it is important to find people like them! Finding the Stuttering community has been the thing that changed everything for me!

  6. You forgot one category: the Useta. “I used to stutter, but I cured it by _________”

    One lady came to our NSA Chicago chapter to inform us that her brother cured his stuttering by talking into a mirror, and if we all did that we’d be cured. Another guy drove all the way from Indiana to tell us that he cured his stuttering by putting wax in his ears, and offered to sell us some.

    • OMG! You are so right! The USE-tos! Tiger Woods’ quote about use-to-ing always pisses me off. It is called spontaneous recovery!

  7. Thank you for your wonderful excerpt. I love the title of you book! It’s always helpful to hear about what to tell people not to do when they react to those who stutter. I have a question for you. Do you consider your stuttering to be a disability at this point in your life or solely an impairment? Meaning does your stuttering still hold you back from participating in daily activities or is it something that is always with you yet, it does not hold you back?

    • Thank you so much for that questions!! And also for taking the time to read my little part of ISAD!

      I do consider my stuttering a Disability (note the capital D). To be a person with a disability in the US means that you are part of a protected class of people and ensured your civil rights. Stuttering in and of itself does not block people from doing what they want—-although many of us may not get a job as an air traffic control announcer. Instead I find that people’s attitudes are the bigger barrier—at least for me. The other aspect to stuttering being a disability is that means people cannot discriminate against you and they have to accommodate you. I remember in grad school (in psychology) I encountered professors who would have concerns about my speech—I did not. This impaired me more than my actual speech.

      I think it is impaiarative to view Disability from a social/cultural model. Disability is a social construct and defined by the environment. Generally if we could decrease stigma around stuttering then many of the barriers we experience would be reduced.

      Now with all that being said—I will do freeze up when I have to say my name to people in environments where I don’t have control. That is mostly because I know that people make assumptions or say weird things. If this was not the case I could stutter my head off and not waste my mental energy on managing their reactions or perceptions of me.

      I always say that I don’t overcome my stuttering but I overcome the attitudes and barriers from the envionrmen. Which often translates into overcoming assholes ;-).

      Thanks again for your questions!

  8. Thank you for the hilarious and painful essay! Such a powerful reminder that good intentions don’t make up for bad manners and self-righteousness. So exciting that you have written another book! Your first book about 504 plans looks awesome, what an important topic!

  9. Nina,
    As a SLP graduate student, I really enjoyed reading your take on “stuttersplaining”. While I’ve heard of different types of “-splaining”, the term “stuttersplaining” was new to me. Although some of the stories you shared made me cringe, as I couldn’t believe people had actually approached you and said those things, I appreciated your sense of humor and confidence in dealing with these situations. What advice would you give to people who stutter about how to adapt such a confident, strong attitude, especially in dealing with people who “stuttersplain”? What advice would you give about how to deal with these situations when someone approaches them and tries to “stuttersplain”? Thank you!!

    • Thank you for your comments and questions! I think one of the things that helped me to understand how to handle “stuttersplaining” is through the experience of people from different cultures, sexual orientations and disabilities. Learning from their experience I was able to understand that I don’t always have to explain everything to everyone all the time. It is my choice of whether or not I want to share something and that is dependent on things that are very personal to me. Something that I might share on this site I don’t mind doing because of the environment and the choice of whether or not to volunteer to do it. I think there is a risk to our mental health when we are constantly put into the position to educate others and we should have a conscious choice in doing that. Since I have had models from different cultural experiences I learned from them which helped to confidently tell people to F-off if I was not comfortable–and that is a lovely place to be ;-). I hope that my book helps people to examine these situations a little more closely.

      As for advice for dealing with different situations, I think it is very individual. For me I decided that I never wanted to be in bed thinking–I should have said that or this. I want to nip things in the bud when they happen. Deciding that was something that helped me. I like to tell people that I am heckeled all the time as a person who stutters so when it happens on stage I am like a karate black belt just waiting to get into a bar fight. But that is very specific to me. Even still there are situations that throw me off guard–especially when they are subtle. I am so glad you asked all this because it is all going to be “deep dived” into in my book!!

  10. Nina,

    I am currently a second-year graduate student studying to become an SLP! I noticed your response to another comment discussing your thoughts about speech therapy for children who stutter, but I am wondering if you’ll describe what you feel are essential components of speech therapy for adults who stutter?

    Thank you for your input, your advocacy, and your humor!

    • Thank you so much for reading my bit and the comments. I am not a speech therapist so reluctant to say what speech therapists should do. I do like therapies that help their clients become more comfortable with their speech, help them disclose and respond to discrimination in the environment. I am a big fan of the work being done at the American Institute on Stuttering. I have some friends who have had therapy and love it. I like that their model is more strengths based than focused on fluency. I do think the person who stutters should have the choice of engaging in whatever therapy matches their communication goals. For me personally, my goal is to be a good communicator and not be to fluent.

  11. Hi Nina!

    Your humor and wit are a force to be reckoned with. I had a few giggles while reading this because some of your stories and people’s ideas for a “cure” are absurdly hilarious.

    I am a current SLP graduate student and my professor who teaches my fluency disorders class is a stutterer himself. On the first day of class, he asked if anyone in the class stuttered. Nobody raised their hand. He then went onto explain that being a stutterer means that he has his own “special club” – a club that nobody else can join unless they are too a PWS. I was immediately taken back by how he considered his fluency disorder as unique asset to his personal and professional life. As a person who works with students with disabilities, do you consider stuttering a disability, a barrier, or an asset? How do you teach your students to embrace their disability/differences?

    Also, the term “stuttersplaining” is a new one for me. Thank you for your kind reminder to keep any and all personal and professional opinions about stuttering to myself, unless the PWS asks for it 🙂 Nobody knows what is it like to stutter better than those that do stutter.

    Thank you for your inspiring, yet comical post!

    • Thanks for reading my post! I appreciate your openness to the stuttersplaining perspective 🙂

  12. Thank you Nina for sharing your stories with stuttersplaining! I am currently an undergraduate student studying speech-language pathology and audiology at The University of Akron. The stories you shared were very eye-opening and gave me a bit of a chuckle. It’s helpful to hear about what to tell people not to do when they respond to those who stutter. I appreciate your sense of humor with this very important topic.

  13. I loved this!!! Thank you for your hilarious and real take on stuttersplaining. I don’t know what it is about so many people that makes them believe that they are experts in the field of everyone else’s struggles. Being able to criticize them with a bit of a laugh definitely helps. I look forward to looking more into your stand-ups and Ted Talk!!

  14. Nina,

    I enjoyed reading your post! I especially liked the analogies you made on how nonsensical stuttersplaining is (a physician telling someone they are overweight, using knowledge from movies, etc.). I am a second year SLP graduate student and this frustrates me as well, I can only imagine the headache it gives people who stutter!

    In your post you said that you encourage people to talk about stuttering so that it can be de-stigmatized. What advice would you give to someone who wants to talk to someone who stutters and learn more but is afraid they may end up giving unsolicited advice?

    • Thanks for this question Tiffany! I think a lot of people struggle with this! I think there are are few different things to consider. Although I love to talk about stuttering, there are some conditions where it can sometimes feel like a burden. When I am getting paid to educate others I am much more open to the varied questions I am asked. When I am out with my friends and in a party mood I am not as willing to educate others. So generally the setting is a big part of how to engage.

      I think another aspect is to learn as much as possible on your own. There is so much information out there, and much of it is created by people who stutter. I think it is important to find out the basics on your own. When people hold me up to be the first and final vessel of stuttering dissemination, I get really uncomfortable (I have experienced this with one particular friend). When it feels like just my stuttering is being focused on and objectified, I have a problem with that.
      Generally, if you have a relationship with the person or their role is to educate, then these are the ideal situations. Especially if they are inviting questions and your inquiries are sincere and authentic as well as open minded. If you come with this spirit, I think it goes a long way :).
      You asked something that I think about a lot! I even have a chapter in my book about it, so sorry if it is a little took over and above what you asked–but like I said–I really appreciate this question!

  15. Hi Nina!
    Thank you so much for sharing your story and adding humor into it. I am SLP undergraduate student and your perspective is amazing! I loved the part when you talked about God giving you a stutter and the fact that he didn’t give it to you just to take it away. I also totally agree on your point about advice , it is so annoying when someone tries to give you advice that was not asked for and they aren’t qualified to give.

  16. Nina,
    I love the humor you put into this post but also the erasing of awareness for stuttering. It made me realized I take my speech for granted. Thank you for sharing your experience with stuttersplaining.
    -Jenna

  17. Hi Nina,
    “I have noticed that a large segment of the non-disabled population possess a miraculous superpower: whenever they are in the presence of someone with a disability, they are suddenly endowed with a PhD in that person’s condition.” I love this entire statement because its so freaking true. This was funny to read and interesting because people are just what can I say very hilarious interesting character’s. I just really can relate to this but I have a slightly different disability. I swear I cant stand when I explain my condition to people then they act all surprised and feel the need to tell me what I should I do or why this or why that. I just really love this

  18. Nina,
    I absolutely love the way you explained this. I love the way that you approach this topic with humor. It blows my mind that people actually say these things to you! I can’t imagine having to deal with people coming up to me and offering advice for something they know nothing about. Thank you for sharing!
    -Kiersten

  19. Hello Nina,
    Your story was very interesting I never new that people thought stuttering was supposedly caused by a” lack of romantic or sexual fulfillment”. That was quite silly of the therapist to even suggest that, that was the cause of your friends stuttering. Thank you for sharing your story

  20. Hi Nina,

    Thank you for sharing! I really enjoyed your piece. I really cannot imagine the shear audacity someone has to have to come up to you and tell you what you are doing wrong. I also really enjoy seeing humor in your piece also. Sharing this way is a good way to spread awareness by the crazy things people say.

    Megan