Earlier this month, media reports indicated that a 28-year-old doctoral student named Sam who stutters was ridiculed by a barista verbally and in print on his cup.  We are grateful to Sam, who wishes to remain anonymous, for speaking with us regarding his experience and how we can constructively move on from this incident.

National Stuttering Association: Tell us a little about yourself.
Sam: I’m 28, I’m a Ph.D. student at the Wharton school.  I grew up in New Haven. My goal through this is to spread awareness about stuttering.

NSA:  What is your experience with stuttering?
Sam: Starting when I was about six, I went to speech therapy for many years, mostly in elementary and middle schools.  I tried the SpeechEasy hearing aid.  I did the American Institute for Stuttering intensive program when I was 14.  I haven’t been in speech therapy for a long time, since I was about 20.  My stuttering is not as bad as most of the other stutterers I speak with, but I do stutter quite often at times.

NSA:  Now that it is several days after the incident that occurred at Starbucks, have you reflected on what happened?
Sam: My friend Tan and I went back and forth about whether it would be a good idea to post about my experience on Facebook but we thought this was something people should be aware of.  I was surprised about how quickly the Philadelphia Inquirer picked up the story and was astonished at how became worldwide news. It’s been a surreal few weeks.  If you talk to any of my friends, they would say there is no way Sam would want this attention.

This incident happened, and I felt that it was appropriate to write to Starbucks and tell them what happened.  I just wanted them to be aware. When Starbucks sent me $5 it made me feel like I wasn’t being heard. Then we decided to post to social media, where it got picked up quite rapidly.

I’m a third year Ph.D. student, and I’ve been pursuing a career that is not a typical career of a stutterer.  I’ve been told that specifically because of my stutter, I will have a harder time on the academic job market because on that market your job talk is the so important, if not the most important, part of getting your first job in academia.  I’ve really tried not to have that influence my life choices. That’s hard to do though when you’ve been told by senior academics, “Hey, your stutter is a serious issue.”  I don’t try to ignore it, but try to have it not get in the way of my choices.

So after this happened at Starbucks, these reporters kept asking if I was angry or upset, and I specifically said “no.”  I certainly didn’t want the person to get fired.  I didn’t want that to happen.  Punitive measures instead of educational measures are usually the wrong move.

This experience has made me reflect on my stuttering as part of my identity, more so than it has in a long time, for better or for worse.  I’m fully aware of how terrifying it is to stutter, and there are people who would rather avoid those situations entirely over stuttering while in them. I was thinking about those people when Tan and I decided to post this on Facebook.  I feel very humbled by the attention this is getting.

NSA:  What do you wish people who work in customer service knew about people who stutter?
Sam: I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question.  The easiest answer is education.  That’s harder than it sounds because to train Starbucks employees, which is a company with high turnover – and not just Starbucks, but every place like Starbucks – to invest in the kind of training that it would take to be of service to every kind of person with a disability probably isn’t a viable business model. Moreover, we’re asking companies to solve a problem that we ourselves don’t know how to solve.

I’ve studied those kind of interventions, and mostly they are ineffective or based on correlation findings.  It’s amazing how little we know about how well these diversity trainings work.  I think you first need to know how to train people and how to train them quickly before you can say, “Starbucks, you need to provide training.”  It’s a very tall order to tell a corporation to train their employees on this sort of thing when the efficacy of those trainings is suspect. Ideally, employees should be trained, so my answer is education but I’m skeptical and that skepticism does not fall solely on Starbucks shoulders.

I think Starbucks as a corporation handled this situation well.  The VP of Operations personally called me and apologized profusely, and I thought she was quite sincere despite the clear motivation to protect themselves from a PR nightmare.  Outside this experience, I haven’t run into this situation many times before.  Generally, people are kind and decent.  Navigating the world to find and educate the people who aren’t is a complicated problem that smart people in both government and academia probably need to spend more time trying to solve.
NSA:  What advice can you give to someone who finds themselves in a similar situation?
Sam: I’ve been asked or told from some people about what happened at Starbucks: “You should have yelled at them right then and there.”  And that’s probably not right.  Certainly, some diversity trainings say that as soon as you see something like that, you should address it and call it out.  I gave the person a 25% chance that they didn’t speak English when they first heard my name and repeated it to my face as “S-s-sam.”  That probability decreased when I saw my name on the mug. I mean whose name is “SSSam”?  However, I didn’t see what was written on the cup until I left the Starbucks.  I maintain that there is still a nonzero chance the person was simply ignorant but I thought this probability was small enough to warrant an email to Starbucks and posting what happened on Facebook.

It’s tricky.  I feel like there are experts in speech pathology and conflict management who could answer this better.  I feel like I came out of this situation okay, and I don’t think getting into an argument there would have worked.  Arguing usually doesn’t result in understanding.  At the same time, if you are super insulted, you probably shouldn’t walk away from that situation.  I think it really depends.  You should address it in some way that makes the person who felt disrespected comfortable, but I can’t make a blanket statement about how to address these types of things.  Every stutterer has their own emotional cocktail that makes those situations tricky in different ways.

Many thanks to Sam for sharing his story with us!