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Stammering at the Enquiry Desk

Andrew Janes | 01.12.2009

You don't have to be fluent to work at an Enquiry Desk. This article by Andrew Janes is based on a presentation he gave at the BSA National Conference in September 2009.

Andrew JanesI am an archivist. When I tell people what job I do, they quite often misunderstand and think I am an architect. This isn't just because I am a stammering archivist: fluent archivists frequently find themselves explaining that they are not architects or anarchists or arsonists. For readers who do not already know, the purpose of an archivist's job is to look after historical records, which I like to think is closer to being an architect than an arsonist or anarchist (except perhaps in salary).

The popular image of an archivist is a slightly creepy-looking person wearing an elderly cardigan and surrounded by dusty boxes of documents written in old-fashioned handwriting. This is largely untrue: while I do spend fair amounts of time looking at old documents (and sometimes even wear a cardigan), I also do a lot of speaking and listening.

Speaking situations at work vary from ordinary conversations to formal meetings, training sessions (both receiving and giving them - I'm nothing if not versatile), presentations, and the occasional conference. Far scarier than any of those, however, are public duty shifts, where I sit beneath a sign saying 'Research Enquiries' pretending to be a modern-day oracle. On busy days, I can spend most of my two-hour shift moving - or trying to move - my mouth.

A positive view of my enquiry desk duties is that they are profoundly desensitising.

A positive view of my enquiry desk duties is that they are profoundly desensitising, particularly on busy days. (For any readers not familiar with the idea of desensitisation, understand that I put myself in a position where I talk - and stammer - to a great many different people.) If desensitisation is as good for you as speech and language therapists say it is, then struggling to answer complicated questions on the spot when you know very little about the topic and cannot reliably say your own name must be very good for you indeed. I find struggling to work out what to say to someone far more alarming than struggling to say it, and for me, that helps to put stammering into perspective.

Habits

I will confess - because doing so counts as desensitisation too - that I have a few bad speech habits. I talk too fast, especially to the customers. I don't use the speech techniques that I've been taught. (Perhaps I don't feel comfortable with how I sound when trying to speak in a funny way; perhaps I'm just plain lazy.) I still do some situation avoidance. Worst of all, though, is my eye contact. One of my secondary behaviours is shutting my eyes when I stammer (in extreme cases, I screw half of my face up in the process, which I imagine could be quite off-putting to the other person) and on a bad day it can be next to impossible for me to look at whomever I'm talking to in the conventionally polite way. It helps that I have various props - index volumes, maps, computer screens, etc - which give me a genuine need to look somewhere other than at the customer's face for part of the time. But I ought to try harder with my eye contact and my job gives me plenty of opportunities for practising.

Fortunately, I have also developed some better speech habits. One is that I avoid word avoidance, which was never something I had found effective anyway, as I would be certain to block on the substituted word. Another is that I have managed to make myself use the telephone at work when that's what anyone else would do. When I was younger I just couldn't answer the phone unless I had to. I didn't get over this till I had a job where I was required to use it. Something inside me usually screams gently whenever a phone rings, but I've grown used to using it when I need to. Occasionally, I also do some self-advertising. (For readers unfamiliar with this term, it means explaining that I stammer when I meet people for the first time.) I don't enjoy doing this but when I make myself do it I feel more in control of how I appear to others.

Reactions at work

Most people I come into contact with at work handle my stammer quite well. While my colleagues are aware that my stammer affects how I talk to them, it seems not to affect how they talk back to me. If it has ever occurred to anyone (except myself) that someone who cannot really talk properly should not be doing a job with 'excellent communication skills' in the person specification, they have never mentioned it in my hearing. I know from talking to other people who stammer that not everyone's experiences in the workplace are so positive, and I believe it helps that nearly everyone that I work closely with does customer service in one form or another.

My stammer appears to have little or no effect on how well my customers understand me or how satisfied they are.

My stammer appears to have little or no effect on how well my customers understand me or how satisfied they are. (Or do they just expect archivists to be strange?) The most negative reaction I've had in the past year came from a gentleman of about seventy, who did gentle repetitions back to me in a joking kind of way. I gave him a mild withering look - a skill inherited from my schoolteacher mother - and we said no more about it. Much more pleasing was being congratulated on doing a speech-heavy job by two ladies who told me that they stammered themselves.

Something that I have often noticed at stammering conventions and other conferences is that the presenters and workshop leaders tend to seem much more confident, fluent and generally 'together' than I usually feel. Sometimes I would prefer to hear from someone who wasn't self-actualised, someone who didn't have an ever-expanding 'comfort zone', someone who got some things right and other things wrong but struggled through anyway, and someone who didn't fan the flames of my inferiority complex. When I spoke on this topic at the BSA conference, I tried to be this second type of presenter - someone who is very much less than wonderful but does better than he used to.

I will not wait to become a more fluent speaker: I can use my voice now.

A version of this article originally appeared in the autumn 2009 issue of 'Passing Twice', a newsletter for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who stammer. 

From the Winter 2009 edition of Speaking Out, pages 16-17.