Written by Ronan
New situations can be many things. They can give us opportunities for change or provide us with excuses to avoid. Stimulate us to embrace new ideas or reinforce opinions from the past. Intimidate, drain, or inspire us. It is safe to say that 2020 has presented many of us with a new set of circumstances to deal with and adapt to. Among several seismic events to have occurred recently we have felt the acute effect of a global pandemic, causing us to restructure and reconsider many aspects of our lives, including the manner in which we communicate and the dynamics of our interactions.
One notable aspect of this for myself, and others who stutter, has been the uptick in the use of video calls for social and professional means. Video calls present a combination of factors that are not found in other forms of communication, a unique medium for a strange time. Throughout my life I have found that I must not only adapt to the broad characteristics of new situations, but also how my speech may be affected. This has perhaps been most noticeable for me in my experiences discovering a foreign language. In my 11 years learning how to conjugate verbs and navigate semantic nuances in Spanish, I also had to understand how to contend with my stutter’s behaviour in a different tongue. This meant learning anew how it would weave a path through my sentences, how to account the reactions of others, and how to prolong, block, and repeat.
My experiences with video calling have been similar, as have those of friends who stutter. We must navigate these new mediums of communication whilst also learning how to manage the impact they may have on our speech. For some, video calls are a relief from traditional phone calls in that they provide visual cues that may aid communication. For others, the interface between speakers can exacerbate challenges. Static mid-block poses can be misconstrued as webcam issues and intermittent Wi-Fi can add extra layers of dysfluency to our speech. Technology also brings with it avoidance 2.0, as we are able to attribute reluctance to speak to faulty mics, bad connections, and malfunctioning software. As with other contexts, we must learn what it means to communicate with a stutter in these situations and how we can engage with them in a healthy way.
I now have a fair amount of experience with video calls and I have gradually become more comfortable. Initially I dreaded these calls, the echo of my own voice around an empty room combined with faces peering back at me from the screen was unnerving. The rooted nature of these interactions was also a challenge for me. When I speak on the phone I like to walk, the motion of my legs helping to power the conversation. The stasis of chair and desk does not quite provide the sense of flow I look for. I also found that group calls can complicate turn taking and, in the midst of the block, it can be difficult to land a clean snatch of the microphone. However, the digital conference room provides tools to combat this: the chat box allows for spontaneous contributions and for us to assert a desire to speak. Equally, the act of “unmuting” becomes a powerful statement of intent. I think it is important to bare these things in mind and embrace the opportunity to communicate.
I have the good fortune to video call with those who stutter and those who do not on a regular basis. The medium still presents its challenges, nevertheless I recognise that I have also been able to learn and grow because of these experiences. The uneasy state of the world and the new situations we are confronted with take time to adapt to, but they do offer us the chance to reflect and reconsider how we interact and communicate. As has been noted in other articles from the Stamily collective, it is important to remember one’s own wellbeing whilst navigating the maelstrom around us. The stuttering community has been fantastic in providing opportunities for those less accustomed to video calling to experience this medium in a supportive environment. Many local support groups have moved online and initiatives like Stutter Social offer meetings multiple times a week for people who stutter all around the world. Equally, various national associations including those in Spain, Nigeria, and India have organised online events to further push conversations around stuttering.
The consistency in community is encouraging and there is little doubt that the power in video calls is increasing the depth of our shared experience regarding stuttering. This will stand us in good stead for a more connected future in which many of us will be required to use video calls regularly. We should continue to work hard to support others and make sure stuttering voices are heard and understood in this context.