Some people are visibly uncomfortable when they meet someone who stutters. They might stare at the person, like a deer caught in headlights. Or they might look away, as if the person were a solar eclipse. Some people freak out completely. I’ve seen it happen in my waiting room. It’s awful for everyone involved – and (of course) most of all for the person who stutters.
Helpfully, many stuttering research and support organisations have published guidelines, “DOs and DON’Ts”, and practical suggestions about how to speak with people who stutter. I’ve set out some links to some of the better ones at the end of this article.
But there are a couple of problems with these lists:
- Some of the suggestions have no or very limited evidence to support them (e.g. St. Louis et al., 2017).
- More importantly, people who stutter are not all the same!
Think about it
Imagine if I asked you – right now – to scribble down all the rules we should use when talking to any person in the world who doesn’t stutter. Ridiculous, right?
Some people are extroverts. Others are shy or ‘curt’. Some people get nervous when speaking in some places, e.g. on the phone or in public. Others love the spotlight. In some cultures, intense eye contact is welcomed. In others, it’s a sign of aggression or contempt. Some people speak at a million miles an hour. Others take forever.
Now think consider this:
At any point in time, across the globe, about 1% of the world’s population stutters.
No bullet point list of tips is going to apply to everyone who stutters.
Too often, people who stutter are stereotyped and discriminated against (Boyle & Blood, 2015). Public attitudes to stuttering can have a big effect on the quality of life of people who stutter (e.g. Hughes, 2008). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people – even well-intentioned friends and family members of people who stutter:
- describe people who stutter with words like “shy”, “passive”, or “fearful” (e.g. Woods & Williams, 1970);
- tell people who stutter to “relax” or “slow down” or to “take a breath” or to “think about what you want to say before you say it”;
- finish words and sentences for people who stutter;
- assume that stuttering excludes people from “talking professions” like law, medicine, or speech pathology (e.g. Gabel, 2015). It doesn’t;
- make jokes about stuttering, or people who stutter;
- ask whether the person has seen A Fish Called Wanda or (more recently) The King’s Speech; and
- reference “stuttering” songs like “My Generation” by The Who or the truly awful Stutter Rap.
Most of the people who stutter that I’ve worked with don’t find any of these things helpful.
So what guidance can we give people – family members, friends, teachers, employers, employees and others – who honestly want to help people who stutter overcome prejudice and discrimination?
Why not ask lots of people who stutter to review lists of “DOs and DON’Ts” and to give their feedback?
Obvious, right? But, surprisingly, no-one had done it as part of a peer-reviewed study. Until very recently.
Professor Kenneth O. St. Louis and colleagues administered a questionnaire to just under 150 adults (ranging from 18 to 85 years of age, with about 66% being male). The questionnaire asked the respondents to rate how supportive they found 24 different ways that have been suggested for people who don’t stutter to react to stuttering, which were derived from a bunch of different lists of “DOs and DON’Ts”. They also asked for open feedback on things people who stutter found helpful and unhelpful.
5 key themes
For the reasons explained above, there was no consensus or single list of things that helped. But five key themes arose from the responses:
- Treat stuttering as a non-issue. Listen to the content of the message – not the stutter.
- Treat people who stutter just like anyone else.
- Be sensitive by showing compassion, patience and kindness.
- Don’t be insensitive: don’t mock or crack jokes.
- Be aware that different people who stutter have different attitudes to their stuttering.
Evidence-based guidelines for speaking with people who stutter
Based on their study results, St. Louis and colleagues proposed a general “guideline statement”. It’s a bit wishy-washy for my tastes – mainly because different respondents had different views and the guidelines seek to be all things to all people. But, on closer examination of the findings underpinning the statement, several sensible suggestions emerge:
- When you first meet a person who stutters:
- be engaging: maintain eye contact (if culturally appropriate), but don’t stare;
- be patient: wait quietly, give the person as much time as they need (no rushing), and don’t finish the person’s words or sentences unless they ask you to;
- be accepting: don’t judge – include the person in a group conversation, and be respectful;
- be friendly!;
- try to be as comfortable as possible: don’t be embarrassed, ashamed or afraid of stuttering. In my view, one way to do this is to educate yourself about stuttering, learning that stuttering is a physical issue that has nothing to do with a person’s language skills, intelligence, personality or character. It means doing some work to overcome myths, superstitions, stereotypes and prejudices about stuttering. Stuttering is not a mental illness, a curse, or a character flaw. It’s a communication impairment; and
- listen actively to what the person says.
- Once you get to know the person:
- learn more about their stuttering; and
- modify your behaviour based on the person’s personal preferences for things you can do to help.
- Once you get to know the person well, ask the person gently whether they mind if you ask questions about their stuttering and how they would prefer you to respond to it. Some people will welcome this. Others won’t. Respect the person’s wishes.
- Don’t assume that people who stutter need or want your help.
Clinical bottom line
Public stereotypes and discrimination about people who stutter are based on ignorance and fear. Getting informed about stuttering is one way to overcome it. Working hard to improve the way we speak with people who stutter is another.
There can be no fixed rules about how to speak with people who stutter because every person who stutters is an individual with his or her own views on what helps (and doesn’t). Adopting some of the themes and applying the guidelines above as a starting point can help. But we need to be flexible. Ultimately, what matters most is seeing a person who stutters as a person – not as their communication impairment – and respecting their views on what helps them (and what doesn’t) in a given situation.
St. Louis, K.O., Irani, F., Gabel, R.M., Hughes, S., Langevin, M., Rodriguez, M., Scaler Scott, K., & Weidner, M.E. (2017). Evidence-based guidelines for being supportive of people who stutter in North America, Journal of Fluency Disorders, 53, 1-13.
Here are some useful lists of DOs and DON’Ts for interacting with people who stutter, some of which were used in the study:
For teachers of school-aged children:
- Stuttering in Schools – A Resource for Teachers (Australian Stuttering Research Centre)
- 8 Tips for Teachers (The Stuttering Foundation)
For adults who stutter:
- 6 Tips for Speaking With Someone Who Stutters (The Stuttering Foundation)
- What to know and do when speaking with a person who stutters (National Stuttering Association)
- Recruiting and developing employees who stammer (employer booklet) (The British Stammering Association)
- What to do when talking to someone who stutters (FRIENDS)
- What can I do to better communicate with people who stutter? (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association)
- Listening Tips (The Stuttering Association for the Young)
- How to talk with a person who stutters (wikiHow)
- 5 tips for interacting with people who stutter (Nina G, The Mighty)