Yesterday, I had a situation.
It was Monday morning, and I was already not feeling great about the start of the week. The phone rang in our office at work. I answered. “Payroll, this is Jaymie.” She wanted to speak to my coworker who was busy. As I replied to this middle aged woman over the phone, it came out sort of like “She’s in a mmmmmmmmmeeting-“. As soon as the stutter was obvious, the woman on the other side burst out laughing. I don’t mean a chuckle or an awkward laugh. I mean a full-on explosive laughter. Rolling laughter that was not stopping. Hoping it would stop, I kept on “right now. C-c-c-c-can she call you back or do you wwwwant to be transferred to her voicemail?” But the woman laughed the entire time. When she finally replied, it was clear that she was calming down from her laughter. “Voicemail is fine.”
I did my “please hold” business, transferred her, and put my head in my hands. Are you kidding me?
It took me awhile to recover. I still don’t know how to handle these situations. If she had made a comment, like many people do, I could have inserted that what she heard was a stutter. Comments like, “Did you forget your name?” or “Did you forget what you were going to say?” can be answered with, “Actually, I have a stutter” or something of the like. Small chuckles can be ignored, if you want. But roaring laughter? What the heck is a person who stutters to do?!
My coworkers had some suggestions. “Ask her why she was laughing” “Ask her what was so funny” “Email her about it” but none of those seemed right. What if she was laughing at something else? “She would have said something if it was something else – like sorry or something. But since she didn’t, she thought you were in on it.”
I knew they were right – it was pretty obvious. But it also didn’t seem like the way I wanted to deal with it. So what was?
Luckily for me, I met a few cool people at the Regional Conference this year. I facebook messaged one of them and told him the whole situation. “Any advice?”
He did give me specific advice, and also overall advice. First off, he told me that it was OK if I was really angry at first, and also asked about my previous interactions with her – if any. I had spoken to her a few times, and I’m not sure if I stuttered in those situations. It’s likely she thought I was making a joke (what kind of a joke, I’m not sure… but that’s a very common thought in these situations).
How to handle this situation in particular? He advised me to pause at the laughter instead of continuing my sentence. When she’s done laughing, I can ask, “Everything OK?” This will put it on her. Some will realize their error now. Others may note what happened so that I can reply, “Actually, I have a stutter. Sometimes it’ll take an extra moment for me to say something. Is that OK?” I thought this was brilliant advice, and I am absolutely storing the idea for later.
I have further thoughts on when this happens in the workplace by other employees in particular, but for now I’ll focus on the daily situations of this happening. The truth is simple: most people laugh because they don’t know. Very few people would intentionally laugh at stutter. (Unless it’s a friend with whom you’ve already made a comfortable connection with about this, and it’s a particularly funny word. Like salsa. S’s can be hilarious. But this was not that kind of situation.)
Nonetheless, addressing it tends to be a better idea than not. If you CANNOT do it, don’t worry about it. The world won’t end. But most people admit that after it’s all over, they feel better about how it was handled if they say something. When people are given a chance to understand what happened and apologize, they often will. Let them have that chance. You may end up with a good conversation instead of one that leaves you feeling hurt or angry.
I feel it necessary to add that you don’t need to feel bad if you don’t either. You stutter all day. It makes sense that you don’t always feel like talking about it. But when you can do so, please do. Awareness makes an impact, one individual at a time.
No matter who you are… if you stutter and struggle with how you feel about it: I love you and I support you. You are going to be OK. Your stutter does not define you and it does not rule over you. Your stutter is simply a part of how you communicate sometimes. (I’m stealing that quote from someone else.) Whether you feel weak or strong, know that you can be weak or strong with other people who stutter. Others fight this same battle daily, and you are not alone in this.