Whose Stutter Is This Anyway?

August 11, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A few years ago the American Sociological Association gave its Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues to This American Life. The name of the award in this case is a bit off the mark. We gave them the award because they provide so much great material for our classes.  Sean Cole’s piece “Time Bandit” in their most recent episode, for example, is pure Goffman.

“Not then, men and their moments. Rather, moments and their men,” says Goffman in the introduction to Interaction Ritual. In eleven words, he summarizes his “dramaturgical” approach to interaction. But I don’t think that we realize how radical this view is. Much of it is not radically different from our everyday thinking about interaction. Concepts like impression management, audience segregation, backstage areas and the rest merely shine a light on what we are already dimly aware of. In a course I taught long ago, an undergrad assigned Presentation of Self commented, “Goffman has a keen sense of the obvious.”

What’s radical about Goffman is that he sees even everyday interactions as bounded by the scenario for that interaction. Most of us, by contrast, think about what we’re doing as unscripted,, Nor do we think we are creating structures and rules that constrain ourselves and others. In a few formal settings — highly predictable scenes like a church service or a school classroom — we might realize that we are following the outlines of a script. Or in a long and deep relationship, we might feel limited by its history, a history that we and the others involved have created. But from Goffman’s perspective, even in fleeting encounters, we are all in it together. In moments of embarrassment, for example, the gaffe becomes part of our situation regardless of who committed it.

The central figure in “Time Bandit” was Jerome Ellis. He has a “glottal block” stutter, and he says of the stutter what Goffman says about embarrassment: it becomes a property not of the stutterer but of the situation.

Here is a transcript.

JEROME ELLIS: Sometimes I refer to it as “my stutter,” but sometimes I refer to it as “the stutter.”

SEAN COLE: The stutter.

JEROME ELLIS: Because to me, stuttering is not bound to my body, that it is a phenomenon that occurs between me and whoever I'm speaking to. I like to think of it like it's something that we share.

SEAN COLE: And when Jerome's in a conversation with someone, he stutters partly because the burden to talk smoothly is only on him.

JEROME ELLIS: Exactly, exactly. One way of saying that's like, oh, he's stuttering. But there's another way that's like, there is a stutter happening, you know.

SEAN COLE: And we are both contending with it.


SEAN COLE: And his talk at The Poetry Project was that on a grand scale. That's what he wanted-- for each of us to shoulder a little of the weight of the stutter that was happening.

The Poetry Project is a marathon of performances — poetry, dance, music, stand-up — over 150 performers, so there’s a time limit of 2-3 minutes. Ellis’s performance, which is excerpted in the clip (you can hear the difference in sound quality)  was a plea that stutterers be allowed more time.

Stuttering also illustrates many of Goffman points in Stigma. This next clip shows the dilemma about disclosing a stigma or using different strategies to hide it. Listen to it, don’t just read the transcript.

SEAN COLE: : And it wasn't fear, he says. He does have a lot of fears in his daily life — taking too much of someone’s time, not being able to order at Shake Shack when there’s a line behind him. But this wasn’t that. If he was afraid of anything, it was falling back on the tactics he usually uses to get around a stutter — synonyms, for example, swapping out a word he’s blocked on for one that’s easier to say. He didn’t want to do that on stage.

JEROME ELLIS: : And I didn’t realize that until now, that I think that was the primary fear. And I did do that like two or three times, and I regretted it afterwards.

SEAN COLE: : Do you remember which words you did it on, by any chance?

JEROME ELLIS: : Yes. To their customers with — So there’s the Portuguese word — With.
distúrbios na temporização

which I had literally translated to — in my text, I translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it to just — to “disturbance.” And as you just saw, that word still is like very hard for me to say. So what I did in the performance was —
Customers with
I said, “breaks.” —
Breaks in the timing and fluency of speech.
--in the timing and fluency of speech.

And that was one that I didn’t like that I did that. What I wanted to do was what I — I just did with — with you, is just wait.

SEAN COLE: : Wait for the word.

JEROME ELLIS: : Wait for it. But it was especially-- especially D’s, they can be really painful.


EROME ELLIS: : So that’s why I avoided that one. And I was frustrated with myself. As soon as it happened — like “breaks” to me, it doesn’t capture what I wanted to capture.

*This is an imperfect transcription. There is another sound before distúrbio, but my Portuguese is very limited, and I could not figure out what it might be.

It was this moment, his speech blocked at the same word over and over again, that brought home what he had said before — that the stutter becomes part of the situation. It becomes our stutter. For while I was listening, I kept suggesting alternative words. I thought that the “t” of “to” was the problem. “Translated as. . .” I said out loud.

Social facts, says Durkheim, include thoughts, feelings, and actions that have the strange quality of being properties of the situation, not just of the individual. Here I was, at home by myself, listening to an event that I had not attended and that had taken place at least a year ago. Yet that situation was co-opting what seemed like my very personal reactions. And the stutter — not Jerome Ellis’s stutter, but the stutter — was an crucial part of that situation.

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