Despite knowing someone had better intentions, words can hurt. In the stuttering community, we talk a lot about how people make the comments they make about our speech disfluency typically because they “don’t know” what is going on. They don’t “mean” any harm. While this is true and important to identify, I’ll explain why it’s OK that this hurts and why even the lightest behavior can be harmful to you.
First, a story.
A couple years ago, I was getting brunch with a great friend of mine, who I’ll call Scott. Scott is a good guy, and would never intend to harm me. I know that and I understand that. This was also at a stage in my life where I was not comfortable talking too much about my stutter. I was newly aware of acceptance, and the battle was only about to begin.
He was telling me how his older brother has a great memory, but is a terrible storyteller. But how he, Scott, was an excellent storyteller but had a horrible memory. I laughed and said, “Well good thing I have both those things!”
He laughed back and added, “Now if we could just get rid of that stutter!”
Ouch. Thanks, Scott.
It hurt, but I tried to laugh it off. After all, Scott didn’t mean any harm. He doesn’t really care that I stutter. But it stayed with me. I carried it around with me, particularly when I was telling a story. Would this story be better if I wasn’t stuttering?
Eventually I told a close mutual friend about it, and he encouraged me to talk to Scott about it. At the next event I saw him at, I did. He was confused because this same mutual friend teased me about EVERYTHING. “Not my stutter,” I explained. “It’s off-limits, even to him.” Of course, he felt horrible and apologized a bunch. To him, it was just a random joke because people love to tease me. I laugh off nearly every other joke about me. He didn’t expect one this one to stick because to him, my stutter wasn’t a big deal.
I knew that too. So why did it bug me so much?
Let’s connect this to something physical. Have you ever gotten a gnarly sunburn? Or perhaps you were running and fell and got a giant bruise on your leg? Or you got your wisdom teeth out?
What is true about all of those areas for awhile? They’re sore.
Your friend comes up and wraps you into a hug. They mean well. They don’t intend to hurt you. But the sunburn on your back is SENSITIVE. The hug is horribly painful.
If it weren’t for the sunburn, for the bruise, for the recent surgery, touch would not hurt. After I got my tattoo, I couldn’t sleep on that side of my body for a couple nights. It was tender.
It still hurts.
A poke on a bad bruise can feel like the person just punched you in the arm. It was only a poke. But where they poked was so tender that they may as well have slapped you across the face.
So my friend’s comment was small. It was meant as a light joke and not intended to hurt. Kinda like those people who ask you if you forgot your name. Typically, the intention isn’t malicious. Yet it hurts as much as if they had imitated the stutter back at me and told me I was an idiot.
I guess the question is: why?
Part of it is holding onto this hurt. Maybe one person was bullied as a kid. But maybe it wasn’t even as straightforward. Maybe it was just that constant focus on your techniques, on the idea that only fluent people succeed in life. The idea that you’re still stuttering because you’re not trying hard enough. That others look down on you because of your stutter.
The word for these tiny comments, often by friends and loved ones, is “microaggressions”. I learned about microaggressions as I learned about cultural awareness and everyday racism. Discrimination of speech impediments is different from discrimination based on race, so I can’t argue that it’s the same thing, but it does include microaggressions.
Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. – Diversity in the Classroom, UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014 (bold emphasis by me)
For stuttering, this could be comments, particular glances, even body language. These things hurt because they are a reminder and a result of something much deeper. The discrimination people with speech impediments face.
Today is International Stuttering Awareness Day (ISAD) and I’ve been seeing a bunch of people talk about what “Discrimination Is.” Some of the stories are heartbreaking. People who are discouraged from career paths, openly mocked, fired, not hired, dismissed, ignored… from children who are not given a chance to adults who just want to be heard. Some may think that with all of these horrible things that happen, then why be hurt over a small joke? Shouldn’t we have thicker skin?
But it comes back to the fact that all these small things are a poke on a much bigger bruise that we live with. It’s why microaggressions are so important to at least identify. They may not go anywhere, but being aware of them is an important first step for validating why these comments hurt and why it is OK to stand up for yourself.
Sure, someone may be making a joke. But what they just did was slap the back of a person with a second degree sunburn. It’s OK to say “ouch,” even if it makes the other person feel temporary guilty. It’s OK to say “My stutter is a sensitive topic, and I’d rather you not make jokes about it” even to those who don’t mean anything bad by it.
It’s not wrong for a poke to hurt you when they’re poking a bruise.