Our Favorite Stuttering Metaphors

September 13, 2021
Margaret Miller, M.A., CCC-SLP
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From the tip of the iceberg to the core of the onion, the stuttering community uses metaphors to make sense of a complicated, paradoxical phenomenon. Here we highlight some of our favorites. Check back regularly for new additions - and head over to our Facebook page to share your favorite stuttering metaphors!

The Stuttering Iceberg

Ah, our old friend the stuttering iceberg. Dr. Joseph Sheehan’s metaphor for stuttering dates back to 1970 and is still one of the most common metaphors associated with stuttering today. The mighty iceberg allows us to look beyond the surface of stuttering to what lurks in the waters beneath.

A stuttering iceberg diagram created by AIS clients

Only a small portion of an iceberg shows above the water. In the stuttering metaphor, this above-the-water portion represents the things that are visible to others: physical movements, the sounds you hear, the way someone behaves while stuttering.

What about the invisible, underwater part? The part that sank the Titanic? That refers to everything you don’t see when someone stutters. It includes all the emotions someone feels about stuttering, whether it’s fear or frustration or embarrassment. It also includes the choices made behind the scenes: choices to change words, to never raise your hand in class, or to avoid looking for a new job in a field that involves a lot of talking.

The stuttering iceberg is different for everyone. One thing is sure, though: stuttering treatment that does not address the under-the-surface aspects of stuttering is missing 90% of the problem.

The Balance Beam

Imagine walking a straight line on the ground. Easy as pie! Put one foot in front of the other and this task is something most adults can do without a second thought. It’s considered so easy to do while sober that some law enforcement officials use it as a field sobriety test.

Now raise that straight line four feet off the ground. Suddenly the stakes are higher. A mistake means falling. And suddenly that natural, easy walking motion starts to wobble. What was simple to do on the ground is now tense, uncertain - and much more likely to go wrong.

The balance beam metaphor helps us understand why stuttering can vary so much from situation to situation. Complex motor patterns, such as speech or walking, benefit from habit: we know the patterns so well that we can execute them flawlessly. But when they are forced into consciousness, they are no longer automatic, leading to fluency disturbances and other speech errors.

The Finger Trap

When your fingers are stuck in the finger trap, you can’t get them out by struggling. The harder you pull, the more you tighten the trap! This is the perfect metaphor for the paradox that most people who stutter have experienced: the more you try NOT to stutter, the more you stutter. The more you struggle, the harder you’re caught.

At AIS we’ve found the finger trap to be a powerful tool for explaining the stuttering block to someone who has never experienced it. Sometimes students give classroom presentations about stuttering, and bring these inexpensive toys as a way to help their classmates understand. And all of our therapists have at least one finger trap in their offices!

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The American Institute for Stuttering is a leading non-profit organization whose primary mission is to provide universally affordable, state-of-the-art speech therapy to people of all ages who stutter, guidance to their families, and much-needed clinical training to speech professionals wishing to gain expertise in stuttering. Offices are located in New York, NY, Atlanta, GA, and Minneapolis, MN, and services are also available online. Our mission extends to advancing public and scholarly understanding of this often misunderstood disorder.

Photo credits:

Balance beam - Raphael Goetter via Wikimedia Commons