Breaking the stutter shell: From a Quiet loner to centre of attention
I would usually argue that stuttering is an internal issue. Nevertheless, its impact is so-called “double external”; the first external impact is obviously our disfluent speech. This often causes a chain reaction of negative social feedback, which ends up with us adapting behaviours we otherwise wouldn’t have.
We think we do it to fit in or protect ourselves, but what we’re really doing is building thicker and thicker shells to hide ourselves in. We retreat deeper and deeper into the shell, exposing less and less of ourselves to the outside world.
About a year ago, I came home after a friend’s wedding and thought to myself: “Wow! What a transformation I’ve made!”
Looking back at who I was during my old school parties, I was the guy who sat alone near the wall, trying to look nonchalant while everyone else was dancing and chatting.
I was that guy who sat in the back, talking to one close friend at the most. From time to time, a “cool” girl with a good heart tried to drag me out to the dance floor, but I would decline politely yet firmly.
It’s not that I was concerned about my dancing skills, it was the small chats between, and sometimes during, songs that I couldn’t handle.
I wanted to be on that dance floor with everyone else. they all seemed to have a great time.
I wanted to accept the “cool” girls’ hands and dance with them, but I was stuck deep inside my shell of “the stutterer”.
Fast forward twenty years (already?!), at my friend’s wedding with my gorgeous wife and kids, and I’m a totally different person. I’m a conversation starter, moving from one group of people to another, introducing myself to anyone who looks interesting.
The funny thing is, most of the change I’ve made is internal.
Yes, I do still have a stutter. Although I did improve my speech a lot (as long as I’m below the two beer mark), I feel that’s only the top 10%, the tip of the iceberg. The real change-maker is the big invisible chunk, the 90% that’s underwater.
I want to share with you the lessons that helped me to get to where I am.
If you have a stutter, keep these three things in mind when meeting new people
Understand the other side
Often times, we tend to think about the way we stutter only from our own perspective. We get stuck in a loop where we’re only aware of our speech and the emotions or fears it arouses within us, but we forget the other side of the conversation.
Let’s focus outside ourselves for a minute.
In many cases, people won’t understand why you do what you do when you speak. Even though statistically most people should know one or two people who stutter, since they make up 1% of the population, that doesn’t mean they comprehend that what they hear (and see) is actually a stutter.
Imagine talking to someone who suddenly, out of the blue, starts spitting billiard balls out of her mouth. That’s the reason for all those silly “Did you forget your name?” questions.
Most people wouldn’t say anything but remain uneasy, focusing solely on that thing you’re doing they can’t understand, rather than what you’re saying.
A small side remark acknowledging your stammer can potentially eliminate all that discomfort and restore the focus of the conversation to things that actually matter.
It’s also important to remember that people find all kinds of physical traits unappealing; what’s appealing for some can be off-putting for others. Just like height, body shape, smell, colour, even tooth shape (the list is truly endless) — the way you talk can be a turn-off for some people. That’s natural and out of your control, so don’t dwell on it!
Be open about your stutter
I know this will be very hard for some. I’d like to try convincing you to start opening up about your stutter.
If you think about it, I don’t believe FLUENT is on anyone’s checklist for their ideal partner, boss, colleague, drinking buddy, etc. My theory is: if someone declines your company, your stammer probably had very little to do with it. If anything, it would have more to do with the way you hold and present yourself.
When I started opening up about my speech, I began receiving all kinds of positive responses and perspectives I didn’t expect:
– “It’s part of your charm”
– “I always saw it as a style of speaking rather than a stutter”
– “It’s kind of cute!”
By opening up about your stutter, you’ll also be perceived as more confident, and you’ll feel more confident too. One of the best things I’ve learned from positive psychology is that we judge ourselves the same way we judge others. This means that if you see someone being open about their weakness, you’ll probably think they are strong, brave, and self-confident. By doing that yourself, you’ll think these things about yourself too.
Be mindful about your first impressions
One of the biggest concerns we have in every new interaction is making a good first impression. This is usually an even greater concern for people who deal with a stutter; we worry a lot about how we’re perceived because of it.
People usually talk about first impressions in one of two ways:
Facial first impressions: This is the kind of impression we get about people solely by looking at their face, or at a photo of their face. Believe it or not, studies have shown that this type of first impression takes only a tenth of a second to form. It relies solely on physical attributes of the face, so you can’t do anything about it, except maybe cut your hair and take a bath.
First impression by interaction: This is the kind of impression we get about people by their general appearance and the way they interact with the world. It includes things like clothes, body language, voice, facial expressions, and speech. Some say that this type of first impression is formed within about seven seconds of the first interaction.
There is a lot of information available on this topic throughout the internet. A good start would be to learn about simple body language tools that will help you create better first impressions with people you meet. The important thing is, of course, practising these tools and being mindful of real-life situations.
After you’ve done your best to make a good impression, there’s nothing else you can do! So let other people worry about what they think!
The other side of first impressions
There is often a second side to first impressions that is never talked about.
In every first encounter with someone, you don’t just get a first impression of them (and vice versa), but you also get an impression of yourself with them: that is, the feelings and images you had of yourself while meeting that new person (e.g. did you feel confident or anxious, engaging or introverted, etc.). Let’s call this “self-impression”.
This can, of course, be affected by the state you were at the time of the meeting and by how this new person (or your first impression of them) made you feel.
As we know, first impressions stick. Next time you meet that person, you’ll naturally become who you perceived yourself to be during that first meeting; you’ll become that imprinted version of yourself from that first encounter, and that creates inertia, which is hard to break. This is relevant because of the psychological elements of stuttering.
We all know that we tend to speak more freely with certain people more than with others. Interestingly, I often find that the severity of my stutter with someone usually persists in the same manner after the first encounter.
If you’re like me, your speech is directly linked to your mental and emotional state. Given this, your speech level with someone depends on the self-impression you “recorded” on the first interaction with that person.
Furthermore, this self-impression can explain why we find it difficult speaking with certain archetypes, e.g. authority figures, alpha types, tall people, etc. We form these imprints at a younger age and they stick with us throughout our lives.
Walking the Path
Though it isn’t possible to directly change other people’s first impression of you or the way they behave around you, there’s no reason to let your past insecurities trip up your present self and how you feel in this moment.
Mastering all these tools requires continuous inner work on ourselves: dealing with the underwater part of the stuttering iceberg, melting it bottom-up.
Easier said than done, of course, but by focusing on raising our awareness to the present moment and getting to know ourselves and who we want to be, we can get closer to that ZEN place of responding in the moment, rather than reacting to the past.
This is a life long journey, not a quick fix.
But it’s a journey worth taking.