I have been captivated with the experience of hiding parts of our identities since early childhood. The movie Mulan came out when I was a tween, and I can still remember singing the song “Reflection” on repeat in my bedroom. These were some of my favorite lines:
“Why must we all conceal
What we think, how we feel?
Must there be a secret me
I’m forced to hide?
I won’t pretend that I’m
Someone else for all time
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?”
Although I wasn’t hiding stuttering as a kid, I was dealing with other difficult things and doing my best to keep them under wraps. Years later in graduate school, I met adults who stutter and learned about the experience of covert stuttering. Their stories pushed me to further explore questions such as… “why do we hide parts of ourselves?” and “what are the repercussions for concealing parts of who we are?”
Much of the early research on covert stuttering positioned concealment as a manifestation of weakness, suggesting that people hide stuttering because they are meek, insecure, or inauthentic. Rightfully, this way of thinking has been challenged by the stuttering community and scholars. In his qualitative work, Chris Constantino demonstrated that hiding stuttering can be a power move, or an act of resistance to a hostile social environment. Ableism, or discrimination associated with having or being perceived as having a disability, is the vessel of social hostility for stutterers. People who stutter encounter ableism in day-to-day life on micro- (e.g., being interrupted, mocked, stared at) and macro-levels (e.g., occupational discrimination). One person who stutters I spoke with described concealing stuttering as a form of “defense” against discrimination. Perhaps people don’t hide stuttering because they are powerless, they do so to remain powerful in an oppressive environment.
Hiding stuttering takes guts – it’s an act of opposition to ableism; but, unfortunately, concealing stuttering often comes at a cost. One of the main findings of my dissertation research, published last year, was that concealing stuttering is a strong predictor of psychological distress and adverse impact of stuttering on quality of life. In other words, the more that people tried to hide stuttering the more distress and adverse life impact they reported. This finding was part of a broader survey study investigating how the ways that people construct identity around stuttering and its stigma predict wellbeing among more than 500 adults who stutter.
Here lies the paradox of concealing stuttering. Many people try to hide stuttering to shield themselves from hostility within their social environment. It is natural to want to protect yourself from discomfort or harm. It’s hard, and maybe even traumatic, to repeatedly expose oneself to microaggressions and discrimination. The problem is that hiding stuttering can have its own deleterious effects on mental health and quality of life. There are many reasons why concealment may be toxic to wellbeing. For example, it requires hypervigilance and constant risk-benefit analyses in social environments (e.g., “Am I going to stutter on that word?” “Should I say it?”). It also may be a potential barrier to finding social support – if others don’t know about stuttering they don’t have the opportunity to be there for you when the going gets tough. Ultimately, more research is needed to understand why hiding stuttering can be toxic to wellbeing. Hiding stuttering is a valid decision to make, but for many the consequences are not benign.
Concealment is nuanced, with both prices and payoffs. We cannot expect people who stutter to be open about stuttering all the time, especially in places where they will be penalized for the way they speak. We must continue the work of making the world a safer place to stutter. In principle, people would not need to hide stuttering if the world were safe and accepting of it. This work will involve redefining norms for communication and deconstructing ableist expectations for the way people should speak or sound.
If you stutter and you’d like to further explore your own experience with ableism and stuttering, consider reflecting on the following questions:
- How did I learn to hide stuttering?
- What are the different ways I hide stuttering?
- When I hide or downplay stuttering, what am I hoping will happen? What am I hoping won’t happen?
- What situations do I hide stuttering in more? Less?
- What factors in the social environment contribute to my inclination to conceal stuttering?
- Do I want to live more openly with stuttering? What are small steps I could take to begin?
- What are other ways I can reclaim power in threatening social environments?
If you want to read more about covert stuttering and ableism from the perspectives of stutterers, I recommend the following blogs and other creative work:
- 10 most ridiculous things I did not to stutter, The Stuttering Teacher
- Confessions of a covert stutterer, Sophia Stewart
Note: I am not a person who stutters. We should always default to stutterers as the experts on their own lived experiences. I thank the stuttering community for allowing me to be part of these conversations.