A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of writing articles about a Florida State University student who went crazy, killed an unsuspecting couple and tried to eat a man’s face off. Yes, that happened. When big news like that happens, it’s standard procedure to reach out to the families involved. And I was tasked with calling the family of the victims.
Naturally, my stutter wasn’t being too nice that day and I had some trouble introducing myself. But I did it. I assume that the grieving family member did not understand why I had trouble speaking, and, given the situation, I don’t blame her for responding the way she did.
“I don’t have a comment. I don’t want to talk. I’m hanging up now,” she said harshly before I could even finish saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Handling sensitive subjects like deaths, murders and other sad situations are stressful enough for fluent speakers. So, throw a stutter into the mix and the situation gets much more difficult. The woman wasn’t the only family/friend I had to call for this particular story. But my stutter was no issue in the other interviews I did — funny how that works out.
It’s not uncommon for a mourner to turn down an interview. I mean, the last thing I’d want to do if I had just lost someone close to me would be talk to a reporter. But, whatryagonnado?
This particular situation with the woman is rare for me, I’ll admit, but I bring it up to you guys because it is another facet of being a journalist who stutters. When speaking with a person who just lost a family member or close friend, whose child has been kidnapped, whose brother was the victim of a hate crime etc., I can’t help but feel like a meddling reporter who, despite all her best efforts, comes off insensitive.
But it’s my job and I’ve learned to do it well. However, it’s difficult to come across as the somber, empathetic journalist when your stutter is prohibiting you from sending your condolences. In situations like these, I have about five seconds to be empathetic, introduce myself and keep my tone steady before the person on the other end of the phone (you know, who’s grieving) hangs up.
But no need to fear! I have a system! First thing’s first, introducing myself is key. And luckily, because I’ve done a bazillion of these calls, I’m pretty fluent at identifying myself and who I work for. Then comes the hard part, I have to say why I’m calling in the most gentle, politically correct way. (You know, you don’t ever wanna blurt out, “Oh, I’m calling because your best friend was murdered. Sorry about that”). Finally. I shoot my shot and ask if they’d be willing to answer a few questions.
People never fail to surprise me, though. Even when calling mourners on such unpleasant terms, a majority of the people I speak with are kind and patient and, although they are grieving, are super helpful. I see that as a blessing and I am so appreciative of that.
Besides, when I call these people, it’s not about me or my stutter. It’s about the people I’m speaking with and what they are going through. And focusing on that helps keep my stutter at bay. I’ve learned that when we get our minds off of ourselves, great things happen.