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Making peace with the phone

Jim McClure | 01.02.2002

Or, Curse You, Alexander Graham Bell

It's a cruel trick, isn't it? In a society in which children grow up literally attached to the telephone, people who stutter live in daily fear that the damned thing will ring.

I grew up with the same telephone trauma that nearly all stutterers share. Fear and trepidation, ludicrous avoidances and substitutions, the adolescent nightmare of calling a girl for a date.

Eventually, however, I overcame my phone phobia. What started me on the road to recovery, ironically, was deep denial. As a teenager and young adult, I held out the hope that I would some day outgrow stuttering (I suppose I was a slow learner). Instead of organising my life to avoid the telephone, I stubbornly refused to acknowledge my problem. The result was a talent (or perhaps a misplaced death wish) for getting myself into situations where I HAD to use the phone.

In college I studiously avoided reciting in class yet worked part-time as a newspaper reporter. This required making numerous phone calls to gather information as well as answering calls to the newsroom.

When I joined the Navy, I volunteered for officer training and hid my stuttering well enough to qualify. Not only did I have to use the phone as much as ever, I now had to answer it briskly with my name and rank and speak in an authoritative tone. Going to sea was no escape: talking on a voice radio circuit was even scarier.

Back in civilian life, I went into public relations work at the telephone company, of all places! Not only did I have to answer the phone within three rings, I had to do so in a tone of unflagging courtesy.

In all these situations I used the phone because I had to, cursing myself for getting into this mess in the first place. Painful as it was, however, constant exposure gradually desensitised me. Over the years, using the phone became more familiar and comfortable.

In all these situations I used the phone because I had to, cursing myself for getting into this mess in the first place. Painful as it was, however, constant exposure gradually desensitised me. Over the years, using the phone became more familiar and comfortable.

Today I answer the phone without hesitation 99 percent of the time. I am a voice mail junkie and change my recorded greeting whenever my schedule changes. I carry a cell phone everywhere and can stutter and drive at the same time. When I'm having a bad stuttering day I still feel a moment's anxiety when I make a phone call but it doesn't stop me.

Ultimately I conquered my telephone fears simply by picking up the phone and talking: day after day, year after year. I hasten to add that I initially did the right thing - desensitising myself - for the wrong reason: denial. As a result, it took me a couple of decades to come to terms with the phone. Had I understood then that being open about my stuttering works better in the long run than avoidance and denial, my progress would have been much more rapid.

Here are some suggestions for using the phone successfully:

  • Practice calls help (and are part of many therapy programs). Call a store to ask how late they're open, or ask the theater what movies are playing.
  • Start with easy situations such as talking on the phone with friends. On a bad stuttering day when I have lots of calls to make, I still make an "ice-breaker" call to a friend or business colleague to build my confidence before calling strangers.
  • Be prepared for voice mail. When I call prospective clients for my consulting practice, I use a voice mail script to make sure I get all my key points across without rambling if I have to leave a message. The script helps my stuttering, too.
  • Let people know you stutter. People on the phone can't see you struggling to speak. So when you have a silent block they can't tell whether the line's dead or you are. Saying something like "I'm stuttering worse than usual today, please bear with me" usually gets a courteous response.
  • The most amusing (and hostile) phone tactic I've seen was suggested by Thomas David Kehoe's book, Stuttering: Science, Theory and Practice:
  • "Torment listeners! When telemarketers call, exaggerate your stuttering therapy techniques ... talk really slowly ... "bounce" or do "voluntary stuttering" on every word! Try to keep the telemarketer on the phone as long as possible by asking stupid questions. ... Stop thinking that you are wasting listeners' time by intentionally wasting a telemarketer's time."
  • The best advice of all for using the phone: Just DO it. It gets easier.

Jim McClure is the co-founder of the National Stuttering Association's Chicagoland chapter in the U.S. and is a member of the NSA's board of directors. He has his own public relations business in Chicago.

From the Winter/Spring 2002 edition of Speaking Out