I've become somewhat proficient at observing facial expressions and body movements during a conversation. I can read faces, and I don't even need to play a game of poker to do so.
All I need to do is let a stutter slip from between my lips and I can see the full reveal before the last word is even spoken.
Living with a stutter means I have to be even more conscious of the world around me. I have to know the ebbs and flow of a conversation and understand how a conversation works and how it's supposed to sound. Sometimes, I feel like I've turned into a maestro -- able to observe and at times conduct the sounds around me. The words are the instruments that create melodies and harmonies that balance one another until the curtain is drawn and the conversation ends.
Growing up, I never really used to tune into the body movements of those around me. But after a while, I noticed a certain trend happening where whenever I stuttered, someone would shift uncomfortably or look away. I'm not oblivious to these occurrences. If anything, I'm even more painfully aware of this happening even when I'm struggling to get the word out.
I've seen every physical manifestation of irritation appear in front of me -- from people rolling their eyes and tapping their feet, to crossing their arms and looking off in the distance, to exhaling loudly or just starting a new conversation right over what I was trying to say.
I remember acquaintances and people I didn't know laugh or mimic what I had failed to say. I remember standing in front of a classroom in high school and giving a presentation, but whenever I fumbled over a word there was no escape. It was just 30 pairs of eyes staring straight ahead, and sometimes I'd hear a muffled laugh from the back of the classroom.
In a conversation -- any conversation -- I've had to stop and slow my speech or even re-evaluate the supposed importance of what I was saying based on the body movements of those around me. If they adjusted a strap on their backpack, did it mean they wanted me to hurry up with what I was saying, or was the strap just uncomfortable? If they stared at something in the distance, were they still interested in my words, or more concerned with what I couldn't see behind me?
For me, it's interesting to note when people don't care or can't feign interest in something I say. After years of living with a stutter, I can now tell the difference between when someone is uncomfortable and someone who is uncaring. In a way, it's nice having a stutter because when it appears I can tell who actually wants to listen to what I have to say and who couldn't care less.
The most important thing to do when listening to a person who stutters is to act natural. Don't make fun of the person who stuttered. Don't laugh. Don't try to mimic the person. Don't say anything about learning how to talk. Don't share a look with someone else -- as if the stutter is some kind of inside joke. Don't roll your eyes, or sigh, or look pointedly at a watch or a phone or some other time-telling device.
The people who do these things don't realize that people who stutter have seen it all and they see right through it.
But there's a flip side to all of this. I now see encouraging movements and expressions that counteract the negative ones that I've experienced.
The most encouraging thing is that I can tell when someone honestly wants to know what I have to say. They don't sigh in exasperation, or check their watch, or look over my head at something in the distance. They don't have to say anything. They wait patiently, or give a nod of encouragement, or smile with me if I somehow get out the punch line of a joke I had been trying to get through.
What I appreciate most of all is that they treat me like a normal person -- as if the stutter never existed.
As if I can talk like everyone else, even when I don't.