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 — 62 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?

    • Thanks for your questions. As you suggest, listener responses are important. Keep a couple of things in mind, however: 1) the story is satirical and thus exaggerated and 2) it isn’t about listener reactions but, rather, speaker responsibility. Yes, in an ideal world, everyone is encouraged to participate equally in meetings. My point here was that not speaking up can lead to negative internal and external consequences (in this case, being angry at oneself and adopting a stupid hiring policy).

  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.


    • I agree with you, Melanie. It is frustrating and there is no one way to address it. Some personalities get combative and others wait for the right opportunity. Pros and cons to each, I guess. Thanks for the kind words.

  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?

    • Yeah, the old conundrum of how to get someone outside his or her comfort zone… It often has to be done in baby steps. One is unlikely to go from being afraid to speak up to running a meeting. But maybe saying one thing in a meeting is a reasonable goal. Then 2, etc. Expand that CZ a centimeter at a time.

  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?

    • You hit on why treatment that focuses only on speech production is often lacking. The kid has to get desensitized to the sound and feel of both stuttering and any therapy-induced speech changes; and to his own reactions and those of listeners. Only then will he have a chance to manage his speech and stuttering in stressful situations.

  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?

    • That’s a good question, Elaine. Thinking about your clients’ real-life communication barriers will serve you well in the future. As for specific techniques, much of that is client-specific. Some take to open stuttering easily, others are more resistant. Role-play, counseling, and systematic desensitization are other possibilities.

  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!

    • Patience. Specific strategies have been suggested in some of the responses above and none of them are quick fixes. Fear and anxiety can be deeply rooted and counteracting them takes time.

  12. Dale,

    As always, you have a good ability to write a story that clearly illustrates how tricky communication can be, and, in particular, when stuttering is a factor.



  13. Hello,
    This is a very interesting story that gave me an inside look on what people with stutters go through, because as someone who doesn’t stutter it is hard sometimes to understand what exactly people go through. I had a couple questions. As someone with a stutter does it ever get easier to talk out loud as you learn more about your disorder? Does it help to know the people that you are talking to to feel more comfortable, or does it not matter who it is you are talking to? As someone who stutters how often does this happen, especially with kids, and is there a good way that we could educate people to help people with stutters to feel less self-conscious?
    Thank you for sharing this story and I hope to hear back from you!

    • Thanks for your questions, Brianna. In general, learning about stuttering has made speech easier for me. (Given how individualized that stuttering is, however, I can’t really speak for anyone else on that matter.) I do believe that most people would answer in the affirmative to your second question; making listeners comfortable is one of the ideas behind self-disclosure, after all. Finally, there are tips for listeners available on most of the stuttering organizations’ web sites. The trick, of course, is getting those in need to read them. Let me know if you have some good ideas re how to do that.

  14. Hi Dale, I really appreciate you sharing this experience. I am an SLP graduate student and I was wondering if there have been any conversations in which you did speak up, had a moment of stuttering, and people responded well anyway? How did you feel afterwards? Was it worth sharing the idea even though you stuttered?

    • Actually, I would make the argument that responses to MOST stuttering instances are, if not positive, at least routine. In general, humans are a pretty self-absorbed bunch. That means 1) we’re self-conscious enough to think every stutter (or pimple or hair out of place, etc.) is of great importance to people we talk to and 2) those same people are also thinking mostly about themselves and not paying all that much attention to our self-magnified imperfections.

  15. Thank you for sharing this story. As a first year SLP student, it is helpful to learn the internal conflict of living every day with a stutter. It is hard for me to understand this type of situation as someone who does not stutter. Thank you for giving me this insight on your personal experience.

    • Thanks for the comments, Maria. And for your interest in understanding stuttering.

  16. Hi Dale,

    Great post! I think so many people can relate to the experience you vividly recount, whether they speak fluently or not… I am not a PWS and I have avoided speaking my mind on so many occasions – what held me back was the fear of not being taken seriously. I imagine for PWS the situation might be more complicated…

    I read several other conference essays and I remember one of the other contributors plainly saying “stuttering was my excuse for not speaking my mind” – What do you think about this? Should we all (fluent and nonfluent speakers) take more responsibility? When dealing with stupid, I am afraid, we have to face the same challenges 😊 .

    Love your irony and your candid words

    Grad student SLP

    • Sara: A similar topic came up at a recent support group meeting. How many things are incorrectly blamed on stuttering? Did I keep quiet because I stutter or because I was intimidated? Did she break up with me because I stutter or because I acted like a jerk? It’s a good conversation to have with clients. Some will claim that nothing would ever stop them from talking if they were fluent. Are they accurate or are they missing other barriers because they can’t see past the big one?

  17. Dale,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this experience. I am an SLP undergraduate student and right now we are talking and learning all about stuttering. I am wondering if this was the only situation in which you didn’t speak up? And if so, how does it feel to speak up even if you stutter? Does it feel better than keeping quiet, like in the experience you presented above?

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience,

    • Hi Casey. That’s a tough hurdle for people to overcome. As you suggest, one feels better after speaking up, even if that speech involves stuttering. But it’s so much easier said than done, given the safety of silence.

  18. I really appreciate you sharing your experience. I could really sense your frustration as I was reading. As a speech-language pathology student who is hoping to work with adults, this is very insightful. Thank you for helping me gain better insight on what it is like to live with a stutter and the internal frustrations that come with it.

  19. A great insight into the pain that can be caused by the feeling that you should not use your voice, as well as the actual tangible repercussions in settings such as these for that fear. As a student just beginning to learn about what stutters really are, I really appreciated your words. Thank you for sharing!!

    • Thanks, Sophia. It’s important that students understand that stuttering is much more than occasional 0.5 – 1.0 second breaks in speech. It’s great that you get it.

  20. Dale, I appreciate the humor you were able to put into this story despite the frustration you had to have felt. As a future SLP, I am curious, how often do you find yourself holding back from speaking because of your stutter and how does holding back affect your mental health? Does it take a toll or is it something you are just accustomed to? As time goes on do you find it easier to speak out or is it just as difficult as its always been?

    • Thanks for the compliment, Lauren. It’s not the issue it once was, though sometimes I still find myself leaving a conversation thinking, “I should have said…” Either that’s something everyone feels, whether they stutter or not, or it’s indicative of how ingrained communicative behaviors can be.

  21. Wonderful story that you shared here, Dr. Williams. I cannot imagine the fear and apprehension you felt when you wished that you could fluidly express your opinions to these individuals. I suppose I am wondering, how frequently do you find yourself in situations similar to this one? Do you have any stories about when you felt nervous to speak but actually did and the outcome was positive?


    • I suppose there were times when I over-analyzed things I said. The cure for that was to treat others’ comments the same way, i.e. analyze them carefully–not on fluency, but content. That’s when I realized that many people speak up even when they don’t really have much to add. In other words, even at my worst, I’m no less a contributor that others. Does that make the outcome positive? Maybe ‘not negative’ is a better way of looking at it. In any case, I no longer spend any time dwelling on how listeners might perceive my speech.

  22. Thank you for sharing this story! As a graduate student in Speech-Language Pathology, this story is really helpful in getting some insight into the feelings of clients I may have in the future. I am really able to feel the fear you have for speaking up, even though you know the situation is going awry.

    • Thanks for the comments. If I contributed even 1% toward your development as an SLP, this was time well spent.

  23. Thank you for sharing this story and your feelings of frustration towards it. As a speech pathology student it really helps getting insight and feeling the feelings of one who stutters. Ive realized that I take not having a stutter or speech impediment for granted.

  24. Hello! As a SLP student, I can say that I have gotten scared to raise my hand to ask a question because in case I was wrong, I did not want to sound stupid. Even though I do not have a stuttering issue, I can say that I have a small understanding of what it would be like to have a stuttering issue and get nervous because you may forget a word or even take forever to say it.

    • I would agree that is similar. In both cases, the speaker is overly concerned with what others are thinking. And, I’m guessing, in both instances the listeners are not as focused on the speaker as the speaker assumes.

  25. Hi Dale
    I just would like to say how speechless this left me after reading like I really am confused on what I should say or ask after this but dang that had to be really irritating going through. I would like to know do you not speak up often? Like why not go for it no matter what they think who are they to judge?

    • Good sentiment, but won’t always work as advice. Yes, people who stutter should say whatever they have to say, even if they sometimes stutter. But it’s a process getting there.

  26. Hello Dale,
    Wow! This was so well written that while reading the article I really could put myself in your shoes. I felt the anxiety you were feeling in this moment. I don’t know that I understood how anxiety inducing it is for someone to speak infront of people when they have a stutter. I probably still don’t fully understand, but this has been an eye opener.

  27. I completely felt the awkwardness in that situation and the fear of speaking up. That was me all the way up to my Senior year of high school and sometimes still. It is hard to speak up even when you know that no one is approaching the task at hand correctly.

    • Emily: Thanks for the comment. It sounds like your answer to the question (Do you regret it as much as I do?) would be a resounding “Yes!”

  28. Hello Dr. Williams,
    Thank you so much for sharing this. I can only imagine how difficult it was for you to be in that situation. It must be really frustrating to have to debate with yourself if it is worth speaking when weighing out the risks of being judged and misunderstood. Although I am not a person who stutters, I can relate to your experience. I moved from Romania as a teenager and I did not speak very good English when I started school in the US. There have been many instances when the teacher would ask the class for an answer and my classmates would give the wrong response. Although I knew the correct answer, I preferred to stay silent than to speak with an accent and risk being judged.

    • I think that is a very good analogy, Cassandra. In both cases, listeners got to set the rules even when they didn’t deserve to.

  29. Hi Dale,
    I can relate to this article so much! I get anxiety when speaking in front of large groups of people so often I chose to just keep my mouth closed. There have been numerous occasions when I have disagreed with the majority of people in the room but I just keep my mouth shut for the fear of speaking in front of people. I thought this piece was overall witty and relatable I really enjoyed it!

    • Thanks for the kind comments, Dana. So often silence is viewed as approval when it is anything but.

  30. This opened my mind to what y’all go through when it comes to some situations! it was really eye opening.

  31. Hi, Dale. This is so eye opening on so many levels! People should really be more sensitive in formal situations such as this; you shouldn’t have to feel afraid to speak up and share your opinion, but I totally understand where you’re coming from. I think a lot of people go through these sorts of feelings with all different struggles including language learners and our society should really be more open and accepting. Thanks for sharing. I hope that next time you are able to speak up and I hope that your story encourages someone else to as well.

  32. Hi Dale,

    Your piece was so well written and very informative to me! I know this must be frustrating because I sometimes have social anxiety, but I of course cannot relate fully because I do not stutter. However, this was a very good representation and it put it in perspective for me. As a SLP student myself, it helps me to understand more of what my future clients would feel like. Thank you for sharing!