Terry Prone: Hold your tongue and give those with a stutter a chance to catch up

If you do not have a stammer, and are conversing with someone who does, stifle your interventive instincts: Shut up and let them speak.

3rd Jun 2024
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Originally published in the Irish Examiner.

No, don’t try to be helpful. Above all, don’t try to be helpful.

Never mind how much you want to end the self-evident miseries of the other person, stifle your interventive instincts and shut up.

Don’t offer the word they’re looking for. The one that is bleeding obvious to you because no other word would fit in the sentence they’re articulating. Just don’t, OK?

Furthermore, don’t make any of the gestures or facial expressions that indicate life is short and you’d like them to stop pointlessly consuming some of your supply. On the other hand, don’t look sympathetic, either.

Just stand still with an open face and wait. That’s not too much to ask, is it? It may take a few minutes. Let’s say it even, on a bad day, might take five whole minutes. The fact is that most of us could drum up that amount of time to respond properly to a stutterer — except that we don’t.

Instead, when they get blocked on a word, we supply it, thereby, to use the currently fashionable term, robbing them of agency over their own communication. Or we supply the item they’re having difficulty identifying, silently handing over the document or product we know they’re looking for. Or we nod repeatedly like one of those bobblehead figures on the dashboard of a car. Or do moanies like a bad radio presenter: “Mmm, mmm.”

The worst among us go a step further and tell the stutterer to relax. Telling anybody to relax at any time is offensive but giving a stutterer that instruction is one degree worse. It assumes you know the cause of their dysfluency. Wrong, you don’t. It assumes they don’t know the cause of their dysfluency. Wrong, they really do. It assumes the right to instruct them. (Wrong, you’re equal except they have a disability.) It assumes they are at fault and, as a result, are inferior to you in some way. (Wrong — this is luck of the draw stuff. You got lucky, they didn’t.)

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