Stuttering and Communication - What is Going Wrong

By Hermann Christmann

Often when talking and stuttering to people, they loose eye contact, look embarrassed, and not seldom they seem quite unable to understand what is being said even if it is spoken fluently. Other stutterers have reported similar experiences. Why are we stigmatized because we stutter? In fact, we are stigmatized! Many researchers confirm that, some of them are: Columbus (1997); Rice (1995); and The Stuttering Information Center of Denmark in its 1996 reference on which this paper is based. Woods (1978) even suggests that the Stigma is shaping the stutterer.

However, many of the studies on this topic don't address the level of knowledge on stuttering in the interlocutor, which may be an interesting variable. The Stuttering Information Center of Denmark in a study found some interesting differences between the attitudes of employers ignorant of stuttering and stutterers, and attitudes among employers familiar with stutterers having stutterers as employees. The latter category of employers are in other words less discriminating than are the employers ignorant of stuttering. The study on Stuttering and the Labor Market was carried out at The Stuttering Information Center of Denmark (1996).

The purpose of the study was to investigate employers' attitudes towards people who stutter (PWS), and to investigate experiences made by PWS with respect to the labour market. The information was gathered in order to convey this information to relevant parties such as employers, trade unions, vocational counselers etc. about the results of the enquiry, thus, hopefully, making job opportunities for stutterers better. Questionnaires were returned from 721 employers and 85 PWS. Further selected for an interview were 16 employers, 4 of whom stuttered, and 11 PWS. The results showed, in line with Rice and Kroll (1995) and Hurst and Cooper (1983), that stutterers were in fact discriminated. 11 percent of the employers reported having one or more PWS as employees, these employers were more positive toward employing a PWS than were those employers who had no experience with PWS as employees.

Another interesting by-product of the study were some of the comments obtained in the interviews. These comments often revealed interesting attitudes and beliefs on stuttering. This made me think of what might be the nature and origin of the discrimination.Existing reasearch on stuttering and its consequences in terms of stigmatization, discrimination, stereotyping, as well as selfimposed restrictions is by and large based on Goffmans work, ao. his book "Stigma" (1975). Goffman is a sociologist and uses a sociological paradigm in his research.Later research on stuttering in relation to communication and interpersonal relationships is based on this sociological paradigm too, eg. Rice (undated); Rice & Kroll (undated); Hohmeier (1987); Duckert (1976), and Hagtvedt (1979).

The findings from our investigation support as mentioned above the findings that stutterers are discriminated in the workplace and that stutterers are posing limitations onto themselves. Woods (1978) speculates that stutteres from their childhood on learn the undesirable stereotype or stigma from people they talk to. Columbus (1997) is touching the same theme in his paper on disempowerment.

Quotations from our study:

From employers

  • A person who stutters seems to be nervous.It doesn't bother me, but the customer, the customer should not feel insecure.The person (who stutters) can't get done with the customer backlog.
  • A person who stutters has .... indeed significant difficulties in communicating and expressing himself clearly and unmistakebly.

But on the other hand:

  • (Also) it depends on the persons own attitude to his stuttering.

From the stutterers:

  • I'm very careful about the words i use. My boyfriend with whom I'm living together, has never heard me stuttering.Often I just don't say anything. All these small funny remarks......I just don't say them.Stuttering....destroys the picture of being cool.I get unsecure when stuttering, because I think: "What are they thinking?"
  • I guess it was OK that the vocational counselor in the school advised me not to try to get a job in a bank where I would have to talk to customers. I stuttered severely at that time (now he is manager of a power plant).

At jobinterviews:

  • The interviewer felt unsecure toward a stutterer, she didn't know how to pose the questions.
  • The daycareleader was afraid that (my) stuttering was contagious.

On the other hand, on the job:

  • By signalling, that it (stuttering) is not a problem to me, I'm also signalling that is not any problem to you (the colleagues).

These findings are in line with the findings of the authors mentioned above. Further, the most significantly negative statements elicited in our study were made by people who didn't know anything of stuttering nor did they know a stutterer.

The problem

In my opinion, the problem is, that we have found discrimination, self imposed limitations, stereotyping etc. and then we are not doing anything further. There is very little written about how we can alter this state, although eg. Rice (1995), Rice & Kroll (1995), and The Stuttering Information Center of Denmark (1996) convey some suggestions, ao. educating or informing employers, vocational counselors etc. But the big question still remains open: What is causing stigma, stereotyping, and the entailing discrimination? And then: How can we cancel stigmatization, discrimination, and stereotyping?

A suggestion

My suggestion is, that we have to localize what is triggering stigma, discrimination, and negative stereotyping. Do we frighten our interlocutor when stuttering? Duckert (1976) and Hagtvedt (1978) suggest that when we stutter we are violating the normal conversational rules thus making the interlocutor feel insecure and afraid. But then again: What is causing the insecurity of our conversational partner? Are there other sources of anxiety than breaking the conversational rules? Why are people knowing stutterers seemingly less prone to discriminating?Without having any empirical evidence, I am suggesting, that we have to study the communication process and hence the interplay between intrapersonal psychology and interpersonal psychology. In other words, we have to change the "Goffman sociological paradigm" to a paradigm of a more psychological nature. In this way we might get closer to the "onset" of stigma, discrimination, and negative stereotyping, learning about the nature of their "onset" and "triggering". Then, presumably, we may get a higher chance of eliminating them or alleviating their consequenses.

Good suggestion, eh?


Columbus, Peter, J. People who Stutter: Disempowerment at the Microsocial Level. (Conference paper? 1997? - I have lost track of the origin of the paper, sorry!)Duckert, Fanny. (1976). Stamming i sosialt perspektiv. (English: A Social Perspective on Stuttering). Norsk tidsskrift for logopedi, 22: 46-59. Goffman, Erving. (1975). Stigma. Copenhagen: Gyldendal. Hagtvedt, Bente Eriksen. (1979). Stamming i kommunikasjonsperspektiv. (English: A Communicative Perspective on Stuttering). Nordisk tidsskrift for Logopedi og Foniatri. pp. 37-46. Hohmeier, J├╝rgen. (1987). Zur beruflichen Situation von Stutternden. (English: On the vocational Situation of Stuttering Persons). Ergebnisse einer empirischen Erhebung. Die Sprachheilarbeit 32, 1: pp. 25-31. Hurst, Melanie I.; Cooper, Eugene B. (1983). Employer Attitudes Toward Stuttering. Journal of Fluency Disorders 8: 1-12.Rice, Marshall. Work Place Experiences of People who Stutter. (in press/ about 1995).Rice, Marshall D.; Kroll, Robert. A survey of Stutterer's Perceptions of Challenges and Discrimination in the Workplace. (In press/ about 1995).The Stuttering Information Center of Denmark. (1996). Access to and Conditions on the Work Market for People with Epilepsy and People who Stutter.

Woods, C. Lee (1978). Does the Stigma Shape the Stutterer? Journal of Communucation Disorders. 11: 483-487.

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