Why don't we stutter when we're alone?
Updated: Mar 26
I have been thinking about my day yesterday. It was raining in Illinois, so I spent the day indoors with my 10-month year old. We usually go for a morning walk, but there was too much rain. Instead, I sang songs and playfully danced with him, neither of which I possess much talent.
It got me thinking that the only person I would ever sing or dance in front of is my son (fortunately for other people and unfortunately for my son). That is simply because my 10-month old cannot possibly understand that I am not a talented singer and dancer. I do not feel judged by him, so I can sing and dance in front of him.
The “talk-alone-effect” is the phenomenon in which people who stutter don’t stutter when talking to themselves. Researchers believe this is because people who stutter feel less intimidated when no one is around to engage in conversation. Additionally, I have had clients that never stutter when they talk to their pets or when they babysit young children. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they do not feel judged in those speaking situations.
A study in the Journal of Fluency Disorders, led by NYU Steinhardt Professor Eric S. Jackson explores the talk-alone-effect among people who stutter, and how social pressure and the perception of a listener may influence speech. 24 participants who stuttered were evaluated under five different conditions:
Private speech (where individuals did not know they were being listened to)
Private speech for which only two listeners were present
The results unsurprisingly proved the “talk-alone-effect.” The private speech condition was the only condition in which instances of stuttering were relatively non-existent (except for seven possible mild stuttering events which may have been stuttering or disfluent speech). This is indicative that speakers’ perceptions of listeners, whether true or false, play an important role in whether stuttering occurs or not.
Can we pretend to be alone and just speak fluently?
It’s not that simple. I cannot just pretend that people are not watching me if I decide to sing in front of a group of people. Pretending that no one is listening, but knowing that people are listening can intensify anxiety and actually decrease fluency.
What can we do?
We can pay attention to how we feel when talking alone. Perhaps, if we replicate this feeling when speaking with others, we can increase our fluency.
How do I treat stuttering?
Working with clients who stutter is not all about making someone “not stutter.” Fluency strategies are important and there is a time and a place that those techniques can be used. However, I think it is equally important to work on their own perceptions of themselves and their perceptions of their speech. I also stress that just because they feel a certain way about their speech, they cannot assume everyone feels that way. Afterall, President Biden stutters and he was elected president, so enough people did not consider his stuttering a significant factor to not vote for him. Stuttering does not make you “less than,” people want to hear what you have to say, so please talk to that girl you have a crush on or give that presentation at work! If you'd like to work with me, feel free to schedule a free consultation to learn more how I might be able to help you or your loved one (I promise I won't sing or dance...).
“Adults who stutter do not stutter during private speech” by Eric S. Jackson et al. Journal of Fluency Disorders
About the author
Stephanie Jeret is a Speech-Language Pathologist and the owner of Speak with Stephanie. She obtained her Bachelor's and Master's degree from the City University of New York. She has practiced speech therapy in a number of settings including outpatient rehabilitation, telepractice, skilled nursing facilities, and schools. She specializes in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of a variety of communication disorders including articulation disorders, receptive/expressive language disorders and fluency disorders.