Are You Still There? Stuttering Through a Pandemic

Chris Chiarelli
man on phone

I am a person who stutters. Stuttering comes in many shapes and forms — not only in the ways in which people stutter, but the kind of people who stutter are very diverse.

The Telephone

Being a person who stutters (PWS), I have my strengths and my weaknesses. I consider myself to be a strong listener, an empathetic person, and a skilled user of the English language. As for challenges, one of the biggest struggles that I face as a PWS is the dreaded telephone. The telephone is an amazing piece of technology and has come a long way in almost every aspect. As a PWS, one of the benefits of the telephone’s technological advancements has been the smartphone’s written aspect of communication. Writing has always been one of the easiest ways for me to express myself. It is stutter-free and allows me to pick and choose words based on the impact they will have rather than making a word choice based on how easy or difficult it will be to verbally communicate. In the year 2021, you would be hard pressed to find a person who doesn’t rely on texting, emails, or other written messaging services to communicate.

Different Types of Communication

The smartphone's written aspect is a huge benefitThe next easiest way for me to communicate is in a face-to-face environment. We are lucky enough that face-to-face no longer simply means physically standing in front of another human. Platforms such as Facetime, Facebook, Whatsapp, Zoom, WebEx, Skype, etc., have made face-to-face communication possible for almost anyone who owns a laptop or cell phone with a decent internet connection. With the click of a button or a swipe of our phone screen we are able to see the face of another person who could be down the street or halfway across the globe.

At this point, you may be wondering where I am going with all this, and my point is coming, I promise. But first, why is face-to-face communication so important for a PWS? In a nutshell: body language. So much of how we, as humans, communicate is related to body language. The way we look at people, the slight movements, eye contact, smiling, frowning, fidgety hands, looks of interest/disinterest, and so on. As a PWS, I rely on so many unspoken cues and body language (both the listener’s and my own) to communicate. When I can look at a person while I am speaking - more importantly when I am stuttering - I am able to understand and connect with the person. Yes, I do stutter, but that will not stop us from communicating. It is a give and take when we can each use the other person’s body language to get through the conversation. There are times that I become uncomfortable or the other person becomes uncomfortable while I am speaking/stuttering, and that shows. We, as a society, have learned and have been taught that pointing out that a person is stuttering is rude, it is socially unacceptable, and it is best to not verbally mention it. That being said, as a person who has stuttered his entire life, it is pretty easy to tell when a person is either uncomfortable or, more often, confused as to what is going on.

Call and Response

a verbal telephone call eliminates non-verbal cuesWhy is this person speaking the way they do? Do they need help finishing sentences? What do I do here? In short, there is a lot that goes into communicating. A telephone call eliminates all of those non-verbal cues. The telephone works on the premise of spoken words being heard and thus responded to. Not to mention, we (and I am referring to Canadians here) have a socially constructed way of using the telephone. We start with a “Hello?” or “Good [ insert time of day here ]” and we expect a response back consisting of a similarly formed greeting followed by a reason for calling and/or a confirmation of who has answered the phone.

*Phone Rings*
Person Answering: Hello
Person Calling: Hi there. Is this Chris?
PA: Hi, yes this is he/him/them/Chris/that person (I never know what to answer here)
PC: Great, this is so-and-so from what’s-her-name’s office about that thing
PA: Oh okay
… and so on and so forth.

This is how we are taught to speak on the phone. This is what is expected. It is the “normal” way to have a telephone conversation. However, the way that I speak on the phone, unfortunately, does not always fall into this realm of “normal”. Because of all the rigamarole and telephone formalities, talking on the phone brings me a great deal of anxiety. If I have to call someone or if I receive a phone call, a big part of me wants to find another way to contact a person (email, texting, video call). Often, I contemplate not even answering.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown

Cue COVID-19 and its subsequent lockdown procedures. Here in Canada, more specifically Eastern Ontario, we are living through our second serious lockdown since the Spring of 2020. Of course, businesses and other practices need to continue running and the only way we really know how to do this is either online or by telephone.

Emailing and phone calls have become a part of doing business even more than beforeI live in a small town just outside of Ottawa. There are a lot of small businesses in my town who are working their way through this pandemic. For these small businesses a proper functioning online platform is not really a possibility. This may be due to costs, maintenance, or a myriad of other reasons. Luckily, most small businesses and practices already have a socially distanced method set up: the telephone, so why reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Radio commercials, television ads, and social media posts can be seen and heard all around town explaining that businesses are “running a little differently these days” and “to get your order all you have to do is call…” Easy for you to say, I sort of hate the telephone.

Phone calls for a person who stutters are simply awkward and uncomfortable. As a PWS there are a lot of somewhat unnaturally long pauses in my speech. Whether I am stuck on a word or a sound or maybe I am racking my brain for a different way to express myself, there are often a lot of long, drawn out silences. When I am speaking to someone and they can physically see me, it is pretty obvious that I am stuck on a sound and am doing the best I can to work through it. In contrast, when people cannot physically see me (i.e on the telephone) these pauses are less understandable and occasionally less acceptable. When I encounter these scenarios where I am stuttering on a phone call I am often faced with comments like “I think you have a bad connection”. “Sorry, you are breaking up”. “Are you still there”? I never really know how to respond to these. “ No, my connection is just fine”. “I am not really breaking up”. “Yes, I am still here” . These kinds of comments and questions are completely understandable and innocent in nature. My reaction is never of anger or disappointment but usually of uncertainty and awkwardness. I am, quite simply, unsure of what to do.

To compound the telephone issue, today’s “COVID-19” phone calls often involve paying for something over the phone or sharing important personal information to complete an order, change a document, or update your personal information. My credit card number has a set sequence of numbers, there is no finding a different way to express the sequence of numbers. There is only one way to say the number 3. My full name is Christopher Chiarelli, but sadly the person on the other end of the line doesn’t know that yet. I have gotten stuck saying my own know my own name. I even know how to spell it correctly. But that is not always how it comes across when I am speaking to someone over the phone.

All in all, the telephone proves a rather large challenge for people who stutter and the world wide pandemic that we are all facing has made us, as a society, all the more reliant on the telephone. It is something that causes myself and other PWS a lot of anxiety, which unfortunately often amplifies our difficulty speaking - it can be a very problematic cycle. That being said, overcoming challenges like this is nothing new. I cannot remember a time that I didn’t get anxious when I had to make a phone call, nervous when I had to tell someone my email address, or worried when someone asks for me to read out my driver’s license number. However, I also cannot remember a time when I didn’t persevere and get through it all. Which is why I am writing this piece.

Patience is a Virtue

After reading this, if there is one thing you take away from my words it should be a message of patience. Understandably, going into month 10 of COVID-19 lockdowns and protocols, we are all running a tad low on the patience side of things, some might even say it is wearing a little thin. But, for people who stutter, patience is our best friend. Allowing us to finish our sentences, work through our blockages, and letting us take our time is the greatest thing you can do for a PWS. Please, keep that in mind before asking the person on the other end of the phone if they are “still there”, because the odds are, they still are.

This is Chris Chiarelli's second article for the CSA Web site.

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