Stigma is without a doubt in the air when John meets Sally for the first time and given the first impression – the way he walks, his leather jacket, black sunglasses reflecting the sun – she characterizes his social identity. He is in every way awesome. She expects him to belong to a certain group – the awesome group. Not only does she transform her anticipation into expectations, she creates demands. He has to be awesome. He has to belong to the group she suggests, because of the first impression he gives.
Then something happens. He opens his mouth.
Mmmm- my na-na-na-name iiis John.
What just happened?! She looks away.
I have to be somewhere, she says
She walks away from the “crime scene”. This time she does not want to be part of the role play.
When things don’t match – or when someone has a stigma like stuttering
What happened, according to Goffman, with Sally and John is that John’s virtual social identity and his actual social identity didn’t match. John’s a person who stutters. And this attribute to his identity makes him different from others.
He is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted and discounted one. – Goffman, Stigma
Sally’s relation to John was corrupted, you might even say he disappointed her because he wasn’t who she expected him to be. She as a person who doesn’t stutter and doesn’t depart from other people’s anticipations belongs to the group of normal people. But John, who departs from his virtual or expected social identity, carries a stigma. It’s because of the gap between his virtual and actual identity that he has a stigma.
What also happened was that Sally didn’t know better ways to protect her identity. She could have chosen not to take notice of it. By walking away, which is extreme, she demonstrated that stuttering was of great concern for her. And in one way or another, her own identity took a little damage because now John thinks of Sally as an uncaring, bad person.
When John is not like Sally – but he is
But it’s more than a stigma, because how can he be a whole person? There must be things he cannot do. And according to Goffman Sally reduce his life chances. She says indirectly he is a stutterer, and by this characterization, she limits his life chances because when one stutter, there must be things he cannot do and as a self-fulling prophecy we help John talk. She says the words for him. It’s because John’s a danger to her. He must be. He is a crime scene walking around.
The thing with John is that he doesn’t feel special. He feels he’s normal, just like Sally, because he has a job, a wife, a house. He thinks he deserves certain things and a fair chance in life because of this.
Social norms of what is normal sets the standard
Mmmm- my na-na-na-name iiis John.
Hi John, nice to meet you. My name is Sally. How are you?
A-a-a-apart from – from my stutter I’m f-f-fine.
Oh you stutter, I didn’t notice, it’s barely noticeable.
John may sense that Sally doesn’t fully accept him and don’t consider him a peer. And he knows that the social norms surrounding him and the social norms he has taken in make him aware of all the things he isn’t. He knows what his weakness is, he knows what he’s not capable of. Shame and difficulty with choosing a social identity are in focus because he can hide his stutter. And is he more than his stutter? When he encounter other people his disability – although unspoken – is in focus, because he speaks differently.
Is he more than his stutter? This question is one of the problems stutterers have to deal with. They may think they are more than their stuttering, but in some cases society (as in other people) doesn’t. Then to be accepted the stutterer accepts that he isn’t more than his stutter. And over time it will break him and reduce him to the stutterer. Being a stutterer becomes his identity and with that people expect him to stutter.
Being conscious of the fact that others are conscious of your consciousness
In this scenario, John is conscious about his stutter. He knows it’s outside the social norm and therefore pays attention to not violating the social norms too much. On the contrary, the others are also conscious about the stuttering and they pay attention to limiting his stuttering so that he lives up to the social norms. In this way, everyone is conscious of one another and they all know it.
The outcome is that John becomes self-conscious and also other-conscious. This causes shame and discomfort and a focus on the stuttering, “the sickness”, “the crime”.
John knows he is being categorized as a stutterer and it makes him uneasy.
The outcome of John and Sally
When Sally meets John she realizes that his virtual or expected social identity and his actual social identity are two different things. The outcome is that his social identity is ruined, he is cut off from society and is not accepted as a normal person. He is in every way an outsider. He carries a stigma.
The stigma of stuttering shapes John’s life whether he likes it or not.
And Sally walks away and in the process destroying a part of her own identity.
Doing what is difficult as a way to overcome your stuttering stigma
John can improve his status in the eyes of Sally. He can change the role he is playing. According to Goffman the stigmatized or disabled can change his status by doing what is difficult. That means taking control over activities which usually is regarded unavailable to the disabled. For the stutterer, this would mean to be a better speaker than he currently is. This could be through public speaking courses.
Public speaking courses are of great value because the speaking performance is in focus; exactly what stutterers have a hard time with.
Now John would not be John the Stutterer but John the Fighter, if he chooses to reveal what he did.
By not stuttering or being better at managing it, his expected social identity and actual social identity would match more or less and he would not carry a stigma or it would be a minor stigma.
And by becoming better at speaking in public and also with other people, he can protect his identity and Sally can also protect her identity (if she chooses).
Do you really want to overcome stuttering?
Oh sorry, I can’t do it. It’s because I stutter.
Have you ever thought that? Ever said something like it? I know I have. Sometimes there were things, I didn’t like to do. Not because I stuttered, just because of random things. And I used my stuttering as a way to not do it. I used it as protection. It worked perfectly fine. And it even confirmed my identity as a stutterer; you know the role I was playing. It was safe. I was safe. But it sucked.
Stuttering can be used as protection. Goffman writes:
It is the “hook” on which the patient has hung all inadequacies, all dissatisfactions, all procrastinations and all unpleasant duties of social life, and he has come to depend on it not only as a reasonable escape from competition but as a protection from social responsibility.
When one removes this factor by surgical repair, the patient is cast adrift from the more or less acceptable emotional protection it has offered and soon he finds, to his surprise, and discomfort, that life is not all smooth and sailing even for those with unblemished, “ordinary” faces. – Goffman, Stigma
It sucks not to stutter! All the competition, being ordinary and realizing that being ordinary is not smooth. Then it’s better to stutter and blame everything on stuttering.
It is hard to imagine being like everybody else and not being able to hide. But it means you are ready to overcome stuttering and can take a step in the right direction by speaking more and attending courses. Over time you’ll realize that you can compete. And you will be happy that you did the work to overcome stuttering. Don’t hide behind stuttering. It sucks to stutter.
Where to go from here
You’ve learned that stigma is the gap between your expected social identity and your actual identity. You have also learned that it is possible to minimize the gap by doing the hard work; by striking the iron till its hot. If you wait for the iron to be hot, you’ll wait a long time. Over time you will learn to compete.