First of all, don’t worry if you’ve done one or all of these at some point. We’ve all been an accidental dickhead at some point in our lives. But we don’t have to stay that way. This list is intended to help you not be a dick to those of us who are vocally challenged.
1. “Why are you speaking like that?”/”What’s wrong with you?”
That’s not to say that if you hear someone speaking a bit funny and suspect they might have a vocal disorder you can’t ask, but think about how you frame the question. I think the most tactful thing to say is “Are you having problems with your voice?” That way, if they just have a sore throat, they’ll let you know, and equally, if they have a vocal disorder, it’s a good opening for them to tell you about it. I genuinely sometimes forget I have a vocal disorder, because I live with it, so when someone suddenly says “What’s wrong with you?” it’s a little jarring and I have to take a second to wonder if I accidentally spoke aloud about my theory that all animals speak to each other about us behind our backs.
2. “Oh, I know what’s wrong with your voice. It’s caused by cold weather/ free radicals/ the full moon.”
Most people who have a vocal disorder will have seen numerous doctors, vocal coaches, speech therapists and specialists. So forgive their eye rolls when you launch into your diagnosis coined from Wikipedia, Tumblr and some half-remembered Embarrassing Bodies special you saw two years ago. If the numerous medical experts I’ve been to see have told me Spasmodic Dysphonia is still being studied and no specific cause has been defined, I think I’ll go with that, rather than you telling me it’s because I sat too close to an electric bar fire as a child. Equally, I think I’ll stick with the botox injections they recommended rather than sleeping in a scarf soaked in green tea.
3. “Oh, that’s caused by your anxiety/nerves, right?”
Well, anxiety can make vocal disorders worse. But that’s just because anxiety makes most things worse. Having a broken leg is an all around worse experience if combined with anxiety, but anxiety is rarely the root cause of that kind of injury and nor is it always the cause of a vocal disorder.
I find this one particularly frustrating, because people always say it to me after a difficult bout of public-speaking, and if I say I wasn’t especially nervous, they look at me like I’m lying. But they don’t see me at home, losing my voice when I ask my husband to pass me the remote, and if they did, they wouldn’t assume it was due to nerves.
Even worse is “Did the nerves get the better of you?” What answer do you expect someone to give to that? “Well, you intimidate me so much I temporarily forget how to speak in your presence and have been lying about this vocal disorder the whole time just to cover my tracks.” If they do suffer from anxiety, you’re belittling them and implying they’re weak. If they don’t, you’re making incorrect assumptions about a performance they might have been perfectly happy with (until you came along, you insufferable goit).
4. “But your voice was fine an hour ago/ yesterday/ last time I saw you!”
Nope. They may have sounded better to your ear, but maybe they were just having a good week, day or hour. Maybe they were concentrating extra hard on getting every sound out just right. Maybe they were putting in twice the effort on their breathing and annunciation. Maybe their vocal disorder comes and goes.
I can fake proper speech sometimes, because I’ve learned to use the breathiness in my disorder to trick people into thinking I’m saying things correctly. I drop my aitches (which pains a champion of The Queen’s English such as myself) and pronounce s’s as z’s, which helps to disguise anomalies in my speech. I avoid words containing sounds I know I can’t really say, subbing in ones that are easier. Which means ad-libbing a speech or speaking to someone in conversation is much easier for me than say, reading aloud from a script. I rely a lot on body language and facial expression to convey meaning, so face to face conversations are much easier than phone conversations. And energy levels have a huge effect on how well I can speak. If I’m tired, I just can’t. Being understood is exhausting work and sometimes I just don’t have the energy for it.
5. *Copies what they’ve just said how they said it*
Close friends and family are (hopefully) unlikely to do this, but acquaintances and strangers for some reason think that copying someone’s vocal disorder is hilarious. Just don’t do it. It might seem original and fresh and funny to you, but at the very least, to them it’s boring and at the worst, may be deeply upsetting.
I don’t find it particularly hurtful any more, but can’t really understand what people hope to gain from doing it. I know how I sound. I know it isn’t how most people sound. Do you think your impersonation will cause me to spontaneously recover? ‘Cos that’s the only line of reasoning that means you’re not a total arsehole.
Bonus Quickfix Dickhead Avoidance Measures
Don’t get angry. Don’t instruct them to speak properly, or speak up. Don’t sigh or complain because however inconvenient it is for you, it’s more inconvenient for them. Don’t talk over them. Don’t dismiss their vocal disorder or tell them it’s in their head and they could speak properly if they just…
Listen. Be patient. Be kind.