Credit for this post goes to Rehan Nasir.
I wanted to explain further one of my FAQ points on my blog. Item no. 8.
Here’s the background story.
When I first looked at the agenda for the all-hands engineering department meeting in about a month, I saw there would be “Introductions.” I took a deep breath and knew already what was going to happen. I pictured the hell in my mind, the room of dozens staring at me, the quiet hum of the air conditioner in a hotel conference room with uncomfortable furniture, ugly tables, plenty of water, and the simple expectation of an introduction. Who are you? And why should we care?
I’ve been stuttering for years, and like almost everybody else who stutters, I have a really hard time saying my name. It’ll come out, but it’ll take its damn sweet time.
I ran the hellish scenario over and over again in my mind. But then I walked into the hotel conference room three weeks later and was overjoyed. There were at least a hundred people in there. All from the engineering staff of my company and our client. There’s no way, I thought. No way they’re going to introduce every single person in here. And besides, it’s been a few months that we’ve all been working with each other. Everyone who needs to know someone already knows their name.
As part of the consulting group, my boss told us to mingle with the client and try to sit next to someone we didn’t know. To me, this request was a total joke. I would never even consider going up to any of these folks and introducing myself. If someone wanted to introduce me, I’m all for it. But the inability to say my name really hinders many spontaneous social networking aspects of life. Nonetheless, I sat down near some people who I didn’t know in case my boss was looking. I put down my computer, and decided a soda would be a nice way to start the day. As I walked to the back of the room while everybody was still getting settled, I became even more overjoyed and relieved. Nametags. And there was mine. No need to say my name. I clipped mine on and made sure it could easily be read by others. I was tempted to draw a bar above the e so people would pronounce it correctly. I took my chair in the middle of the row, popped open the can and looked forward to two days of meetings without having to worry too much about actual work.
I sat, as I usually do, near the back of the room. Not all the way in the back, but close enough where I couldn’t easily be picked on. All the rows were outfitted with the same flimsy tables, turned over fake crystal water glass, pitcher of ice water, pen, pad, and some candy. The chairs were conference room class, a small step above buffet restaurant. I said hello to a few people I knew, and tried to look busy by scribbling down ideas and tasks for work as I waited.
As the room eased into their chairs, and the speakers started, I paid close attention to what was being said since our client relationship was still relatively young. This two-day off site was very important. The point of the workshop was to bring everybody together on the new workflow process and to answer questions about its use during engineering projects. As a project manager, I was familiar with the process, but interested in how the manufacturing plants were subscribing to it. The organizer then said he’d introduce the speakers, and started to give a short background on each of them. So this is what they meant by introductions. I leaned back in my chair and took another sip of soda. I had gotten away with one. Just as I started to think about other things, the organizer asked that the finance people at the plants stand up and introduce themselves. A microphone was being passed around.
I started to worry.
Not a lot of the engineering staff knew the finance folks, so maybe this is just a one-off group to be introduced. There weren’t too many of them, either. Maybe a dozen or more. Now the corporate engineering leadership was being asked to stand up as well. My heart started to speed up slightly. Maybe they’ll forget about the consultants. And why not? We’re just the little people. Not even part of the — oh, ok, so now the rest of the engineering staff is being asked to stand up, including the consultants. I started looking for the exits. I wondered if it would be obvious to anyone there if I suddenly left. My palms started to sweat, and I took another nervous chug of my soda while standing up.
I thought again very seriously about just walking out. There are times when I know I can maybe say my name, and times when I know it is just not going to happen. This hell was the latter, and they even started in the back of the room, closest to me. The microphone was gaining speed as people introduced themselves. Seriously, nobody else in here stutters? So much for statistics.
I tried to take deep breaths, and wasn’t paying any attention to any of the names. I was half turned around, because I didn’t want to be totally caught off guard when the microphone showed up. Nearly a hundred people were either standing or sitting in front of me, facing the back of the room, watching others perform the simple task of stating their name, title, and what plant they were from. Every technique that I’ve learned is considered the moments before a demand like this. But as soon as the warm microphone touched my hand, the tension within peaked. My breathing was tight, and I gasped for some air. Visualizing anything became impossible. I told myself to pause and breathe but couldn’t. I knew exactly how loud the speakers were and how much my handicap would be broadcast across the room.
I can sit in my car on a 10-hour trip and spend the whole time saying my name out loud to myself without stuttering once. I do these exercises a lot when I’m driving for a meeting when I know I’ll be put on the spot. I try to figure out the shape my mouth makes when the sound comes out on its own. I try to determine where my tongue should be to form the word. I say it quickly and then slowly. Over and over again. And I don’t ever stutter. All of that goes away in an instant, and a full block of the sound starts. The block is like a weight on your vocal cords that must slowly be pushed to the side with a long, drawn out syllable. The heavier the weight and more stressful the situation, the more energy and sound needed to push it away. More often than not, the weight is spring-loaded. As soon as you’ve pushed it out of the way and got into the clear, it jumps right back and prevents the last name from flowing out easily. There are rarely good days with my name. On the best days, the weights just disappear. On regular days it’s a mental dance around the weights. Words can be avoided entirely, but still need a feasible synonym.
As I brought the microphone to my mouth, I was sweating. When you’re asked to say your name, there’s not supposed to be a delay. Why would there be? I started into my first name as soon as I could, knowing I had to, and as the first syllable started to drag out, the female engineer standing in the row in front of me just laughed. Laughed. The whole room was quiet, me holding this microphone, trying to stutter out my name, and her laughter. This registered as one of the most humiliating responses to my stuttering ever.
As always, the name came out, followed by my title of project manager and my company’s name. I didn’t even bother trying to get the last name out. I rarely do. It’s just as bad and equally worthless since there’s never a name even close to mine that might cause confusion.
I handed off the microphone, took another breath, and mentally checked out for the next few minutes. I avoided any eye contact. I wasn’t sure if I felt eyes on me from behind. I started to wonder about what other people thought of me. What the people right around me thought. Maybe they thought I was just nervous. The ones that have never met me might have thought I had some language issue. Is English even his first language? Maybe in his language, they pronounce his name differently.
I was put off for most of the rest of the meeting. I couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened.
This all happened about five years ago, and things for me are very different. I’m more comfortable with my stutter. I’m not sure how different things would have panned out today, but I’d like to think that I’d have been upset enough to confront the person who laughed at me.