Tag Archives: privilege

Speech Disability and the Privilege of Speaking Easily


Debbie says:

Until I read Rachel Hoge‘s “What Do You Call a Woman with a Speech Disability? Invisible” in Dame Magazine, I didn’t know that stuttering is four times more common in men than in women. No one knows why.

I did know that stuttering is a serious condition that affects the quality of people’s lives, but I had never thought about it in a gendered context. Hoge’s piece changed that:

My disability and gender are always impacting how others react towards me in conversation. Like most women—and most women who stutter—I have endless examples of silencing: the professors who dismissed my contributions in-class because I stuttered; the seemingly polite men who, in conversation, spoke over me or didn’t wait for me to finish speaking; or worse still, the flirting men who called my stutter cute, expecting me to be grateful that they’re willing to overlook my verbal “flaw.”

Most of the challenges I face in everyday life are a result of both my disability and gender, and are impossible to separate. For example stuttering is often misinterpreted as a sign of nervousness and weakness, a stereotype I’m also forced to contest because of my gender. It’s widely known that women are more likely to be interrupted while speaking—and this phenomenon is only amplified when you’re a woman with a speech impediment. Women are told that the only way to gain respect in everyday life, particularly in the workforce, is to speak firmly and clearly; for women who stutter, however, fluent speech cannot be conjured on-demand—especially during stressful situations. As a result, women who stutter struggle to be heard and respected more than most.

She is also clear about who can be expected to listen, and her ideas about why:

… women are much more likely to wait patiently while I speak, to allow me the time to finish my own sentences, to maintain eye-contact, and treat me with respect—even when I stutter. I have no objective data to offer on why this is the case, but if I had to propose a theory, it would be this: society has tried to silence women for centuries and women know it. Women also know how it feels to be dismissed or disregarded because of something we can’t control: gender, disability—these are predetermined outcomes. These factors exist inside our DNA, and most people are aware enough to recognize that.

Hoge identifies herself as having a master’s degree and a full-time job in her field; she is also writing an essay collection on “the intersection of disability and gender.”

This subject made me think about all of the ways that easy speech is privilege:

Easy speech (which I am very good at) is class privilege, because what we call “easy speech” is an ability to readily use the cadences, vocabulary, and pronunciations we have learned to expect from television, movies, and auditory social media. Someone who speaks very easily in their home cadences but not outside them will not be heard as speaking easily when they are not at home.

It’s education privilege, which is closely related to class privilege but not identical, because it can be learned. The first person I heard speak about having to change her language when she went back home after getting her advanced degree was bell hooks, and so many people who have exceeded the education levels of the rest of their families tell the same story.

It’s first-language privilege, or at the very least, language-fluency privilege. If I try to speak in French, the only language I can be said to know at all, I don’t sound like my English-speaking hypercomfortable, hypereducated self.

Separate and apart from the conflation of stuttering and self-confidence, nonetheless easy speech is a marker of self-confidence privilege. A person with no speech disability whatsoever can still be uncomfortable or feel out of place enough to forget words, start sentences they don’t want to finish, and otherwise miss the “easy speech” target.

And, of course, Hoge’s whole point is that it is ability privilege; some people simply cannot speak easily, and no amount of will-power or self-knowledge will change that.

All of the above privileges, and the lack of them, can intersect with gender in the ways Hoge describes; if you are a woman, you will be interrupted more. If you are a woman with any obstacles to easy speech, you will be interrupted even more, and you will have less power to stem the interrupting tide.

Dear John Goodman: No Sympathy Here

Debbie says:

Let’s shed a tear for actor John Goodman (actually, I’m a huge fan of his work), who has apparently never thought about the fact that a shoe feels different on the other foot:

At a social gathering, Goodman, an admittedly huge fan of Wiig’s work, approached the “Bridesmaids” star mid-conversation and it didn’t go so well.

side by side photos of the two stars

“She was talking to somebody else, and I was just — I think she’s so great, and the social barriers broke down and I interrupted the conversation,” he explained to Stern. “And I would just hate for somebody to do that to me. And she goes, ‘Yeah, I’ll talk to you in a minute.’ [makes sound of bomb dropping] It was like the Atom. I shrunk down to Atom size. … I really like her, and it was embarrassing, so I’ll never speak to her again.” 

Melissa McEwen at Shakesville deconstructs this beautifully:

He saw her talking to someone else and interrupted her, which he would hate for somebody to do to him, but did it anyway. And instead of immediately dropping her conversation with someone else, which they might have considered pretty rude, she told him she would talk to him in a minute.

That actually doesn’t sound very terrible to me!

And I suspect if that had been the whole story, it wouldn’t have sounded very terrible to anyone else, either.

But Goodman went on to explain that her failure to immediately stop her conversation and give him her full and undiluted attention on his schedule made him feel small and insignificant.

You can write this off to his movie/TV star status, which means that he has way less opportunity to learn how to deal with someone blowing him off for five minutes. Or you can say, as McEwen does perfectly accurately, that this is simple misogyny and male privilege at work, that Goodman does this to people all the time without a moment’s thought to whether or not it hurts them, and then can’t tolerate it.

The third piece, however, is Goodman’s size. If he were not famous, he’d be fat enough to lose at least some of his otherwise automatic male privilege, and he’d be very familiar with conventionally beautiful women (especially ones who are movie/TV stars themselves) blowing him off, not just for five minutes, but permanently. Quite likely, he would live in constant awareness that any conversation with a conventionally beautiful woman was an insult risk, just as everyone in a one-down position lives with the constant awareness that any interaction with someone with more power or privilege is an insult risk, or worse.

When he takes this minor interaction, which could so easily be framed as, “Look, Kristen Wiig is polite enough to finish one conversation before starting the next,” as an irretrievable insult, he isn’t just setting Wiig up for dozens of articles calling her out as rude, and he isn’t just revealing himself as having a pathetic need for immediate gratification, he’s also distancing himself from people who look like him, telling them that he believes in his right to expect something they can’t even imagine expecting.

John Goodman, you have experienced a Teachable Moment. I’ll write out the lessons for you:

1) she (and everyone else) has every right to finish her conversation (or her life) without talking to you;

2) if you learn how to deal with minor human interactions without drama, your life will be better;

3) if you weren’t famous, this would be an everyday occurrence. Be kind to the people who have to face much worse with their morning coffee.

P.S. to Kristen Wiig: Please don’t make a public “apology,” for doing absolutely nothing wrong.