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When the words just don't come

Maeve Binchy | 01.06.1997

Maeve BinchyThis is an edited version of an article which appeared in the Irish Times earlier this year, a copy of which was sent to us by the Irish Stammering Association. The author Maeve Binchy has kindly given permission for excerpts from her article to appear in Speaking Out.

I have a friend, Sue, in London who has a stammer, and a friend, Valerie, in New York who has a stutter. The words they use are different but they describe exactly similar conditions and the two women have exactly the same attitude. They don't want speech hesitancy to be considered an affliction to be lavished with sympathy, but they do want it recognised as a condition.

I have an overpowering urge to finish most people's sentences for them all the time

As it happens, I am a bad friend to both these women because I have an overpowering urge to finish most people's sentences for them all the time. Those who are thoughtful or measured in the way they speak have no chance of getting to the end of what they want to say - I assume any slight pause is a licence for interruption.

More than that, I often consider that a good conversation should be full of interruptions and half-completed thoughts. This is what keeps people alert and awake. And even as a heavy talker myself, I am content to be interrupted in mid-flow by other eager speakers. I suppose I feel there's a kind of fairness about it, if someone has the floor a bit too long or has got repetitive or takes an age to get to the point then it's only fair, in the interest of balance, to let others in.

One of those things those who stammer like is to be allowed to finish the word.

But if you're dealing with someone who has a stammer then this is not the right way to go. I thought it was, and that it was part of not being patronising and patting them on the head and saying "Does he take sugar?" But I am told it calls for a slightly different kind of support, and one of those things those who stammer like is to be allowed to finish the word. In fact, they will finish it if you let them and then they will have a sense of achievement. By saying it first, you are robbing them of that sense of achievement. Do it all the time and conversation becomes pointless, they say.

The other thing they like is eye contact.

The other thing they like is eye contact. Here, mercifully, I am not too bad because I do look at people - maybe too intensely and with too much interest, but I keep looking at them whatever they are saying. Even if they are struggling for a word I would not avert my eyes. And this is good. Stutterers and stammerers hate seeing people look up at ceilings or bend down to examine the floor to avoid eye contact. Sue says she has looked at more hair-partings than she wants to see in many lifetimes. People are always picking things off her carpet, she says, rising triumphantly with a piece of fluff just as soon as she got the word out.

In New York, Valerie says, they study the air conditioning high up in the wall and she says their adam's apples are bobbing around as they wait for her to finish the word that is causing her grief.

[Sue] hates the word "actually" but she uses it a lot because it sort of heads off whatever feared word may be coming up

Sue is an artist, a down-to-earth sort of person who hates the word "actually" but she uses it a lot because it sort of heads off whatever feared word may be coming up. Her sentences are full of actuallys that she does not mean at all.

Valerie, meanwhile, is in the legal side of publishing, in rights and contracts - and she finds herself using a very unprecise phrase, "like you know", when she does not want to.

It's only by saying "like you know" that she can ease herself into tackling words that cause her problems, and being an up-front North American she sometimes explains that to people before she begins the conversation.

It is immensely cheering for anyone [who is stammering] to learn from statistics just how many people actually do stammer in the world, how many children go through a dysfluent speaking period and grow out of it and, particularly, how much can be done for those who have not grown out of it.

Often it is a matter of decreasing the anxiety in your life, changing your breathing habits, speaking with deep tones from the chest, of removing every vestige of speech avoidance from your life. So if you find you were buying things from a machine or a supermarket to avoid having to ask for them, or that there were certain words you considered off-limits then you have to face these things. You have to go into a shop and ask for the item you want, or force yourself to say the word you have never yet been able to finish. It can be done; the word actually can be said and if you don't try it, you may well start to ensure other words go off-limits as well.

If you find you were buying things from a machine or a supermarket to avoid having to ask for them.

Once the rest of us realise this is the cure, then we won't go around finishing words and sentences for people any more.

From the Summer 1997 issue of Speaking Out