The truth about Joe Biden’s stutter, according to an expert
There’s a lot about Joe Biden that’s just so relatable. From his love for ice cream to his preference for train travel to his issues with his adult kids, he just seems like your average Joe dealing with some of the same stuff all us non-presidential candidates go through. One problem Joe Biden suffers from is something else many of us are painfully familiar with, as it’s a condition that Forbes says may affect up to one in 20 people at some point in their lives — as Biden revealed in a tweet from last December, “I’ve worked my whole life to overcome a stutter.”
In order to get some further insight into this condition and into how Biden is coping with it, The List spoke with linguistics and communication expert Lauren Cohen. For starters, she debunks the myth that stuttering is caused by stress or nervousness, saying, “Many believe that people who stutter are more anxious than others and this has been repeatedly disproven.” Instead, she explains that stutterers may have more difficulty processing auditory information and may also have somewhat slower sensory-motor reaction times that result in this speech disorder. As to what causes it, she says that stuttering is frequently hereditary, and discloses the fact that Biden had an uncle on his mom’s side who was also a stutterer.
Does Joe Biden still show any signs of stuttering?
Cohen says she has observed how Biden will occasionally hesitate or even seem to struggle a bit before starting a sentence, and explains that since stuttering affects the ability to speak smoothly, “it is quite possible that his former issue with stuttering explains why he sometimes pauses and begins sentences in a non-fluid and somewhat choppy way.” She also says that he will occasionally lapse into some stuttering speech, at which point “video clips hit social media and viciously go viral.” Many of these clips, she says, will “exaggerate his stammer in an effort to make him look foolish and unfit,” or to play it “for a cheap laugh.”
While Cohen says she is not aware of any specific coping mechanisms Biden may have been taught to deal with his stutter, she says that speaking slowly and taking deep breaths are both common methods of stutter management since rushed speech is something that can exacerbate a stutter. Cohen speculates that “the nickname ‘Slow Joe’ may have some relation to his stuttering,” in which case it’s not just the usual political incivility, but actually amounts to disability-shaming.
Does Joe Biden's stutter put him at a disadvantage?
As Biden’s stutter seems to be genetic and more of a physical issue than one rooted in any emotional trauma, Cohen says it doesn’t have a great impact on his ability to engage in debates. She does say, though, that stutterers all tend to have trouble with processing auditory input and are slower to react, cautioning that this could be open to misinterpretation: “If Joe Biden speaks slowly aka ‘Slow Joe’ this could be misread that he has limited abilities or isn’t quick thinking because he is not speaking rapidly.”
Cohen goes on to speculate that “many Trump supporters are looking for any way to undermine Joe Biden,” and speaks of the “ongoing narrative that Joe Biden is unfit to run America due to being feeble-minded and suffering from cognitive decline.” While actual cognitive decline is something that involves confusion, memory loss, and impaired judgment, none of which Biden is exhibiting, Cohen says it’s “probable that some speech coping mechanisms he is using are being misinterpreted.”
Joe Biden's overcoming his stutter shows that he's a survivor
Cohen feels that Biden can use the fact that he’s struggled with and overcome a stuttering problem to his advantage. Not only are there millions of stutterers, former stutterers, parents of stutterers, etc. across both sides of the political aisle, but she says, “People who stutter often display increased empathy, compassion and demonstrate outstanding listening skills [and] are also known to exercise patience.” She finds that stutterers are often underestimated, and says “there is a strength many stutterers have from facing and overcoming adversity.”
One more quality that Biden’s stuttering may have bestowed upon him is a certain lack of arrogance. Cohen explains that stutterers, and former stutterers, are more likely to be humble after the ordeal they’ve been through. She notes that being effective as a politician involves being able to listen to people as much as it does being able to deliver stirring speeches, and, in her opinion, “there is a slight vulnerability in stuttering which can also help create connection and be used as a sign of strength as an effective leader.”
As anyone who watched the speech by 13-year-old stutterer Brayden Harrington at the DNC knows, stuttering, as with any other challenge, can be more of an inspiration than a liability. While Joe Biden may not have the nimblest of tongues, he more than makes up for it in heart.
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