Imagine working as a server during brunch at a busy restaurant, walking up to a table of six, and being unable to say your name. Putting an order in at the bar, stuttering on half of the drinks, and being laughed at by your coworkers — again. Shuffling through a list of synonyms in your mind all day to avoid words starting with the letter “W” (“water” is out; so is “waiter”). Losing shifts because of the way you talk.
“I remember I was serving a table, a family,” says Avital Masri, a server who’s worked in Gainesville, Florida, and at Hillstone in New York City, “and every time I stuttered the dad would throw something back at me, or mock me, or repeat it to me. He would say, ‘Why are you saying it like that? Is there something wrong with the food?’ At a certain point I was like, ‘No, sir, I stutter, and this is just the way that I talk,’ but he still didn’t let up.”
According to Hope Gerlach, a doctoral candidate in the communication sciences and disorders department at the University of Iowa, stutterers are 44 percent more likely to work in food prep and serving than non-stutterers. In fact, the third most common job for people who stutter is supervisor of food preparation and food service workers. More than 10 percent of people who stutter in a nationally representative sample were working in food prep and serving-related jobs, compared to 7 or 8 percent of people who do not stutter.
People who stutter are present in restaurant jobs. But the pressure to conceal their stuttering, the lack of public understanding about speech disabilities, and the unique stress of a restaurant environment all make it difficult for stutterers in the food industry to speak.
Approximately 1 percent of the population — around 3 million Americans — stutters. Stuttering is thought to be neurological, marked by differences in the process of speech production; it is characterized by repetitions, pauses, and other “disfluencies,” many of which sound very different than the repeated syllables familiar to us from Porky Pig. A growing number of stutterers and researchers aim to embrace, rather than correct, stuttering, focusing instead on reducing stigma and discrimination.
In the workplace, however, that stigma holds strong. In an economy like the one in the United States, where almost every job cites verbal communication as a required skill, stuttering can be perceived as a problem. On the whole, people who stutter tend to work jobs that require less education and less experience, and once they find a job, they’re less likely to advance. Some people find it possible to mostly hide their stutter by switching words and avoiding certain situations, and for many, that seems like the best option in a frantic dining room. But it requires a daunting level of effort.
On a recent episode of ABC’s What Would You Do?, a secret-camera reality show that exposes how bystanders react in ethically questionable situations, two customers — played by actors — mock and belittle a server, also an actor, for his speech. When he explains that he stutters, they respond, “And you thought it would be a good idea to be a waiter?” On What Would You Do?, diners at neighboring tables speak up to defend the server. But the reality of dealing with customers as a person who stutters is more complicated.
“I’ve had most of those reactions,” says speech pathologist Courtney Luckman, who worked as a hostess for several years after college at a busy Italian restaurant in Chicago. “Not always that blunt, but just people asking me, ‘Are you okay?’”
Most people who stutter have a difficult time saying their name, and a lack of understanding by the general public makes this situation especially fraught for servers introducing themselves to table after table every day. “Saying my name was kind of a dreaded thing,” says Christopher Schuyler, an attorney in New York City who worked at a few different restaurants as a server. “I was doing everything I could to hide my stutter at that time.” For him, hiding his stuttering meant word-switching and sometimes not introducing himself to guests, for fear of tripping up on his name. Luckman remembers a group of regulars bursting into laughter when she got stuck on hers.
Stavros Ladeas, who ran his family’s diner near Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania, after college, was successful at hiding his stutter, but believed that doing so had consequences that he’s still sorting out. “I was extremely obsessed with not being found out as a person who stutters. … It affected my whole personality,” he says. “Instead of being spontaneous, I had a whole routine. I got the job done, but it was controlled.”
In a fast-paced, noisy dining room or kitchen, there isn’t always the opportunity to get into a conversation about stuttering. “I think it could have been helpful if I were more open about it,” Schuyler says of addressing his stutter directly with customers, “but there’s still time pressure, there’s still all different kinds of people you work with and serve, so the amount of variables is just off the charts. … It was never a topic of conversation. That permits all the misunderstandings about stuttering, like, is this person very nervous, are they incompetent? What’s going on?”
Customers present one challenge, but a rotating cast of front- and back-of-house workers can also add stress. Luckman’s stress was compounded by a lack of understanding from some coworkers; she remembers a bartender laughing at her as she stuttered on the phone with a customer, even after she explained what was happening. “I would actually have a lot of anxiety about ordering my food,” she says. “We got one meal per shift and I had to order it from the bartender. There were some nights when I didn’t order food because I didn’t want to go through that.”
Serving is a taxing job, and managing a stutter in dozens of interactions a day only adds to the exhaustion. “You feel tension, you’re nervous about going to work, and by the time you’re done you’re entirely exhausted in a physical and, more importantly, emotional way,” says Schuyler. “I would ride my bike back to [my house] and sit on the stairs and be exhausted. I’d just have to sit there and recover for a while.”
Aside from the fatigue that comes from stuttering as a server, people who stutter may experience difficulty getting work at all. Before finding a longer-term position at a restaurant in Seaside Park, New Jersey, Schuyler was let go from two consecutive serving jobs. “They never said that it was [stuttering-related],” he says, “but was it stuttering-related? I mean, yeah, I think so.”
Luckman, who worked as a hostess in high school, had a similar experience when she applied to restaurant jobs after college. “I found the job that I actually got after three months of applying and interviews,” she says. “I think I went on somewhere between 25 and 50 interviews. I look back and I’m not sure if it was my stuttering that was preventing me from getting that job, or if it was the fact that I was overqualified, but I did have one [interviewer] ask me, ‘Oh, I hear that you have a speech problem — will you be able to talk to customers?’ I told her yes, but she didn’t hire me.” The restaurateur who finally offered her a job was “a really good boss — he was one of the few people [at the restaurant] who really understood my stuttering.”
Recent research drawn from a nationally representative sample supports the theory that stutterers face discrimination in the workplace. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research found that people who stutter make $7,000 less than people who do not stutter. Demographic differences and comorbid conditions play a part in this figure, but when controlling for these differences, the pay gap between women who stutter and women who do not is even larger. Men who stutter, meanwhile, were 23 percent less likely participate in the workforce than non-stuttering males.
Gerlach, one of the authors of the study, doesn’t have an easy solution for the wage gap. “The workplace is a place where discrimination can be rampant,” she says. “You know who’s in charge; you know who’s above who.” Self-advocacy can be helpful, but it may not always be a solution. Gerlach also believes talking openly about stuttering can be a powerful and positive tool in the workplace, enhancing social support and relationships.
There are no studies looking specifically at reactions in the workplace when a person is open about their stuttering, but research around similar so-called “invisible disabilities” suggests that “disclosure can open you up to discrimination and hostility,” as Gerlach puts it.
“I don’t think restaurants are built to accommodate people who stutter, and that is really, really depressing to me,” Luckman says.
The majority of customers, though, are much more accepting of stuttering than the actors on What Would You Do?. When Luckman told guests that she stuttered, she generally had “a really positive experience.” “They would be like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool, that’s so cool that you’re doing this job,’ and ask me a lot of questions about it.”
More and more, stuttering nonprofits are attuned to discrimination in the workplace. The National Stuttering Association now offers mock interviews, job counseling, and resources for employers, and the new Baltimore’s Union of People Who Stutter plans to provide workplace assistance to stutterers facing discrimination.
E. Draine, a child care worker who co-founded Baltimore’s Union of People Who Stutter, emphasizes that stutterers face ableism in their daily lives, and especially in the workplace. “My main message that I tell everyone about stuttering is that I think people need to change,” they say. “I think the public needs to change; I don’t think stutterers need to change, and I don’t think people with disabilities need to change.” But despite that fact, it often falls on people who stutter to educate the public and manage conversations. Many of them excel at doing so, even in a bustling restaurant.
“I may not be the very traditional waiter, but I can still get the job done,” says Masri. “And the other thing is when I get guests who stutter — which does happen — I’m able to give them more efficient service. It feels nice to be able to give that stutterer the time of day to not feel rushed — to just be themselves.”
Emma Alpern is Eater’s copy editor. Her writing has appeared on the Atlantic, Racked, and Food52. Michelle Mruk is a New York City-based illustrator.
Editor: Daniela Galarza