The bar is packed, and I have to lean across the table to introduce myself. "Hi I'm..." The usual mouth-gapping, eye-opening silence. Followed by the repeated putter of "Ka" "Ka" "Ka." She stares for a second, maybe two. And then she laughs. She looks around the table, reaching out for someone to join her private joke. Met with blank faces from my friends and half-smiles from strangers, she turns back to me, still braying. My mouth is not ready to smile. Even if I wanted to, I'm not able to save her. I'm mid stutter, still reaching deep inside of myself, clawing down into my lungs and my throat, to drag my name out of my mouth and into the open. I greedily inhale a fistful of air and try again, "Hi, I'm K K K."
Improbably, her laughter continues. I watch as one of my friends, the one who knows her, leans over and whispers something. The distraction loosens something in me and finally I spit out "Katherine." My friend pulls away from her ear. The girl looks confused. I hope that my friend has told her to stop being so rude (I honestly hope for something more expletive-ridden), but I know she has told her I stutter. The first thing she says is "sorry." And in that silence it doesn't sound like she is apologizing for her insensitivity -- it sounds like she is sorry that I stutter. Sorry that I have a name that has never escaped my mouth unscathed. Sorry that I am who I am.
As the writer Benson Bobrick once wrote, in those moments my heart hardens against her. She is an adult who has been through years of education, someone who has all the capacity necessary for empathy. She is a magazine editor, a label she had thrown around like a badge of honor moments before. She should know better. We all should.
I don't say, "that's okay." It isn't. Instead, I smile and I tell her that I stutter. Before she says sorry again, I tell her that my name takes me a while. She nods. Mute now. The hurt, angry side of me wants to tell her off, to make her feel small and repentant. The stronger side of me wants to educate her, to teach her about stuttering. Instead, I motion towards my other friend and she introduces herself. It is over in less than five seconds. I pipe up as she finishes, "That was far too easy." We all laugh. It sounds different.
The thing is, I believe in laughter. I believe in smiling in the midst of a stutter, in telling someone that there is nothing to be afraid of and bringing my listener towards me. I believe in laughing at all the ridiculous situations that my stutter creates. And yet, I know that there is something cruel in laughing at the spectacle of stuttering.
So why do people do it? In all honesty, it is rarely done out of malice. More often it is done out of surprise. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we expect the world to be a linear and predictable place. If we hear someone speaking "fluently" one moment, we expect that to continue to the next. When it does not, when it is interpreted and broken apart, we are shocked. I know I am. And so, in our surprise, we laugh. It is a natural reaction.
Yet, it is a response that we need to curb. We need to be kind. We need to resist our most basic and uniformed urges.
I spent years of my life expecting my listeners to be mind-readers, expecting them to react in the perfect way to my stutter. And yet, I realize that I'm not at all sure that I would know the best way to respond if I did not stutter myself. It is not always an easy thing to behold and there has never been a manual for our audience. It is not as simple as it could be, not everyone wants the same reaction. Some stutterers like people to fill in their words when they get stuck; others can't imagine anything worse (I fall into the latter category). The best our listener can do is to ask, but that requires a level of trust that is not present in every interaction.
And so, we must be our own ambassadors, we must lead the way. Having interviewed hundreds of stutterers I know that there is no one single correct response that we require from our listeners. And yet, there are standards that seems to be largely universal. These are the best guidelines that I know:
- Look beyond the mask of stuttering. Listen to our words, not how we say them. React to us, just as you would to anyone else.
- Keep coming towards us. Don't frown or turn away. Don't make us feel too monstrous to behold.
- Keep eye contact, but don't turn it into a staring competition.
- Be patient. The words will come, they may just take a few extra seconds. Don't give up on us and shut down the conversation. Definitely don't walk away.
- Don't laugh at us. Don't pity us or mock us. If you smile out of kindness that is something else. That is wonderful. If you laugh alongside us, we will all feel less alone.
Above all else, show your compassion.
Katherine Preston (www.katherinepreston.com) is the author of "Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice."