Let’s play a word association game. What is the first word you think of when you hear the word ‘stutter’?
If you are a journalist, in all likelihood you will lean toward the word ‘debilitating’. In fact, the phrase ‘debilitating stutter’ is so ingrained into the habits of writers that it has been used to describe men and women as varied as Joe Biden, Emily Blunt, Tim Gunn and Ed Sheeran.
In publications as wide ranging as People magazine, The Daily Beast, NPR and the LA Times, it is near impossible to find a ‘successful’ stutterer who has not been described as having a childhood marred by a ‘debilitating stutter’.
This badge is affixed to them by the outside world. They rarely, if ever, describe themselves in such terms. Why would they? Their stories are not pitiable, they are not figures of weakness. In fact, their stories are full of grit and fortitude. These are people who have faced difficulties and prevailed. Debilitated they are not.
If we agree with George Herbert Mead’s idea of the ‘looking-glass self’, the idea that our own self-image derives in large part from how we are viewed by others, then the language we use to describe stuttering becomes centrally important.
Stereotypes are insidious things. If someone reads an article describing a ‘debilitating stutter’, they would be forgiven for seeing someone who stutters through that reductionist lens. Perhaps a young person who stutters reads the word ‘debilitating’ and feels less competent, less able to aspire to something greater, less a part of the world around them.
The stereotype hangs in the air and, whether you believe in the stereotype or not, you become worried that your behavior may end up proving the stereotype true. Your anxiety spikes, acting like lighter fuel to your speech. You stutter more, panic more, fight against it more. You become more like the stereotype you so deplore.
This paradoxical problem, known as the ‘stereotype threat’, is certainly not only felt by stutterers. Everyone is a member of a group that has some stereotype affixed to it.
We can, of course, hope that the world around us will stop measuring us in ever-narrowing stereotypes. We can hope that we will be seen as the jagged mass of individuals that we are.
In the meantime, I believe that it is worth finding ways to reduce the impact of the threats that surround us.
Writing in his book Whistling Vivaldi, Claude M. Steele introduces the ideas of critical mass and refusing to see people through the lens of their identity stereotype. The more people we see succeeding and stuttering openly, the more the stereotype of debilitation erodes. The more we tell children who stutter that they are capable of great things, the more we expect from them, the greater their ability to thrive becomes.
Take, for example, men like Joe Biden and Jack Welch (another stutterer ‘debilitated’). Each man has described their mothers telling them that were too smart, that they thought too quickly and their stuttered voices were just trying to catch up. How differently they must have felt about themselves as children when the ‘problem’ was framed in that light.
So, let’s go back to that word association game. What happens if you connect the word ‘stutter’ with words like ‘strength’ and ‘capability’? How does that change the narrative of someone’s life?