The Age of Zoom Meetings for a person who stutters

As many of us continue to adjust to working (or studying) from home, there’s been a proliferation of pieces about digital communication in today’s Age of Zoom Meetings. Despite the obvious benefits offered by these platforms during a pandemic, both researchers and “laypeople” have explored why exactly Zoom meetings can be so frustrating. Technological failures and glitches clearly play a part, but many think there is something more fundamental to the medium itself at work. Linguistic anthropologist Susan Blum, for instance, had some especially insightful thoughts about why Zoom—which she sees as based on a “folk model of how conversation works” (ouch!)—is so exhausting. She argues that videoconferencing is “nearly a replication of face-to-face interaction, but not quite, and it depletes our energy.” I couldn’t agree more, especially as the novelty of making your background a Minecraft world fades away. Zoomxhaustion, zoomtigue—whatever you want to call it—is real.

Especially for people who stutter.

While people who stutter (PWS for short) face unique communicative challenges in all parts of their life, I’ll be honest: as a PWS myself, the Age of Zoom Meetings is especially difficult. I’ve spoken with several friends who stutter, and they corroborate my feelings of exasperation with videoconferencing vs. in-person communication. Many of the things that make Zoom simply “exhausting” for fluent people make it emotionally draining and at times traumatic for PWS, especially in high-stakes videoconference settings.

[Before diving into the “why,” a quick introduction to stuttering. Traditionally, stuttering is conceived of as a communication disorder involving disfluencies in a person’s speech (often repetitions, blocks, or prolongations). Scientists don’t really know what causes stuttering, but they do know it is basically neurological and physiological, not psychological. While children who develop a stutter often “grow out of it,” those who start stuttering after early childhood rarely become non-stutterers. Here’s a link to a page created by the National Stuttering Association for more information about stuttering. Because of its current relevance, here is a great piece about Joe Biden as a person who stutters. Finally, for people into linguistics, here is a thought-provoking reframing of stuttering as a speech variety.]

Many of the things that make Zoom simply “exhausting” for fluent people make it emotionally draining and at times traumatic for PWS, especially in high-stakes videoconference settings  

The disembodied voice

Most of the challenges faced by PWS result from the paucity of (or in the case of audioconferencing, the lack of) visual information. This constriction of communication—the inability to harness our full communicative toolbox, in a sense—can have frustrating ramifications for both the PWS and the listener.

First, in cases where the videoconference is the PWS’s first interaction with someone new, the dearth of visual information increases the likelihood that the listener will not understand what’s happening during a disfluency—they will not be able to “read” the person as a PWS. The moments of disfluency displayed by PWS, when conveyed over a platform like Zoom, can so closely resemble technological “glitches” that PWS are often accused of being on mute or having bad Internet service (when in fact, we are just stuttering!)

This adds a new and debilitating layer to the challenges PWS face. During in-person interaction, while we are still often misunderstood, we don’t have to worry about a stutter being seen as a technological glitch (humans don’t have mute/unmute buttons, after all–though I’m sure many of us could think of several people we wish that did!). Secondary behaviors associated with stuttering, things like (involuntary) gestures and hesitations, help communicate the message that “Hey, I stutter” and “give me a moment.” These are all are stripped away in Zoom-mediated communication, leaving PWS to face the stark choice of explicitly “outing” themselves, or appearing technologically maladroit. Neither is a pleasant option—the latter is a lie and makes us look incompetent, and the former can be emotionally laborious and put the interlocutor on the defensive. These misunderstandings, in the way that they derail the conversation and require interactional “repair,” are draining and put the onus on the PWS to constantly explain themselves.

The moments of disfluency displayed by PWS, when conveyed over a platform like Zoom, can so closely resemble technological “glitches” that PWS are often accused of being on mute or having bad Internet service

Similarly, even when interacting with people who know you stutter, the lack of visual data can make it difficult for a PWS to signal the start and end of their speaking turn. When a PWS begins speaking, especially in a circumstance where they anticipate stuttering, they often (again, possibly unconsciously) use nonverbal cues like changing their posture, gaze, or beginning to make hand gestures. All humans do this, of course, but PWS might rely on them as a way to hold the floor when they are having a speech block and want to prevent others from talking over them. Bodily gestures also help to signal the end of a speaking turn, and when it is OK for a speaker to start talking without feeling like they are interrupting.

Few of these communicative resources are available to PWS in conferencing. In my own experience, I speak much less on Zoom calls because I don’t have time to begin a speaking turn. Stuttering most commonly happens at the beginning of the utterance, and by the time I start talking, someone might already have the floor. In cases where I do really want or have something to say, I might use a filler word like “um” or “well” to hold my place as I begin. This isn’t ideal; especially in the business world, it can come across as “unconfident” or “unpolished.”

One of the most interesting unintended consequences I’ve observed in the Age of Zoom Meetings is indicating the end of a speaking turn as a PWS. In “real life,” I find people rarely talk over me when I am having a disfluency—because they see what is going on. In online conferencing with people who know I stutter, they almost always treat me with respect—but they sometimes simply don’t know when I am finished. So they will say “Sorry to interrupt you, Jacob…” when I have actually finished my turn. Of course I appreciate their intentions, but the effect of this apology is that it disrupts the flow of the conversation, makes me feel singled out, and can even put pressure on me to “keep speaking” if the assumption was that I wasn’t done. Other writers have already remarked on how often we are forced to apologize for interrupting on Zoom, and all of this is only exacerbated for a PWS.

Zoom is also marked by the death of backchanneling. We simply don’t do this over Zoom—the playback from a “room” of people saying “Uh-hum” and “Mhm-hm” is horrendous. We also can’t really use nodding to signal we are listening, because our face is probably just a 1”x 1” sliver of someone’s screen. Backchanneling is an essential part of human communication, and the lack of it is difficult for everyone. But again, it makes things especially hard for PWS—many of whom rely on it to keep going during especially difficult disfluencies. (I have been saved many times by an especially empathetic listener in the audience who, by virtue of maintaining eye gaze with me, lets me know that they hear what I am saying.)

Finally, from a psychological perspective, it is difficult for me as a PWS to think that my entire identity on a Zoom meeting is constricted to my “disembodied voice.” PWS are obviously much more than their stutter, but over Zoom one can feel reduced to just that condition. We have less opportunity to display our passion, our confidence, our articulateness, when all we are is a stuttering voice floating through the ether. Research in digital communication backs up this feeling of being “judged”: delays on conferencing systems of even 1.2 seconds made listeners perceive the speaker as less friendly.

Zooming into the future

Like the telephone, Zoom is essentially a monocrop of communication—as Blum says, “all the communicative signs that embodied humans rely on are thinned, flattened, made more effortful or entirely impossible [on Zoom]. Yet we interpret them anyway.” 

Many of points brought up here don’t just apply to PWS. Rather, they more broadly illuminate the limitations of digital communication in its current state. I don’t know if or how these shortcomings can be improved upon, but I do hope we can build empathy for some of the challenges they might pose for PWS and the infinite others who might be misinterpreted while Zooming.

Some things, of course, do help. Being on camera, and having others display their faces, is generally more helpful than audioconferencing—it softens the impact of some of the things mentioned above, but by no means removes them, especially in larger groups. Having empathetic people around also makes things easier for the PWS. But the fact of the matter is that digital communication is simply not built for people with communication disorders. Like the telephone, Zoom is essentially a monocrop of communication—as Blum says, “all the communicative signs that embodied humans rely on are thinned, flattened, made more effortful or entirely impossible [on Zoom]. Yet we interpret them anyway.”

I would love to hear others’ thoughts about The Age of Zoom Meetings. What affordances or challenges does Zoom bring to who you are?

Reactions to an Increasingly Diverse English: “Google My Bulbul”

funzoaPlease watch this video before reading the post.

Warning: this song WILL stick in your head—possibly for days.

Created by the famous Youtuber Funzoa, “Google My Bulbul” is, at the most basic level, a video of an adorable teddy bear singing a song that praises the utility of Google. Why many find the video funny (it has almost 2 million views and a 13-1 like-to-dislike ratio) can be dissected from a variety of angles: music, visuals, cultural references, etc., but for the sake of this post I will focus on the use of language in it.

In following with Betsy Rymes’s concept of “Citizen Sociolinguistics,” my hope is not to analyze the video from a traditional linguistic point of view. Instead, I will look at viewers’ comments posted on the video’s Youtube page and dissect how they reacted to the use of language. As you will see below, what’s particularly interesting about this video is that the creator himself has responded to some of the most interesting and often most negative comments about language.

So, to start with a simple description, in what interesting ways does Funzoa use language in “Google My Bulbul”? Here are some fairly objective characteristics that immediately jumped out to me:

  • Adding an “uh” to the end of lots of words
  • Inversion of word order that sounds odd to an American English speaker
  • Nonstandard use of the progressive tense–“All the information it always giving free,” “It never getting lost,” “It helping download any file”
  • Extremely high pitch

This is not an exhaustive list, rather just a few main things will stand out to most people watching the video. So how do viewers react to the mimicry of this, as the creator puts it, stereotypically “South Indian” accent? Some of the most interesting comments arose out of replies to the following statement (all spelling is written exactly as it appeared on the video’s Youtube page; my translations from Hindi are in brackets):

Lukas Hettieratchi: This is the stupidest thing ever!!!!!!!!!! What is the world, it sucks!!!!!! F**K THIS!!!!!!!

Funzoa @Lukas Hettiaratchi: The pun in this has a certain cultural connotation, u wont understand it if you dont see it. So u r right from your POV. But im sure u shall find smthing interesting from my othr videos

syawkcab @Lukas Hettiaratchi: The video makes fun of how desi [Indian] aunties talk. If you’re not desi, you won’t understand references.

Chakravarthy Kalyan @Lukas Hettiaratchi: lukas,just because u come from different culture does not give you artistic authority to pass stupid comments.This is an adaptation in karnatic classical  south indian music.This culture itself dates back to 1500 years.Learing classical music is a lifetime experience.This person beautifully adapted english into karnatic music and rendred a perfect song.If you cant appreciate some thing atleast have an heart to encourage.

The first two comments, including a comment from Funzoa himself, hint at the belief that the use of language in this video is closely tied with ethnic or cultural identity. According to syawkcab, in order to understand the video’s mimicry, viewers must be Indian. The final commenter finds the video “beautiful” because of Funzoa’s “perfect” integration of “English into karnatic music.”

Many viewers, such as Reeta Sood, simply find the use of accent humorous:

Reeta Sood: Funny Funzoa…really mazedaar [funny]…keep up your good work, accent n all…some morons won’t get it becoz of they un-evolved understanding … 😉

Other viewers, however, found the video annoying and even offensive:

Mohammed Almansour: Wtf is wrong with the writer of this song ??? And he used the freakin indian s**t accent f**k off!! Stupidest song ever

Hamzah Patel: Stop this horrible song funzoa is stupid. This is offensive to English people

I wonder what Hamzah Patel would consider as “English” people? Only British people? The traditional Anglosphere (UK, US, and other English-dominant former British colonies)? Anyone who speaks English at all? It’s worth noting that several hundred thousand people speak English as their first language in India and might use some of the phonetic or lexical features in this video that sound “odd” to an American English speaker.

One interesting exchange between Funzoa and a viewer highlighted different attitudes towards what counts as “correct” English:

Zarin Mansur: silly grammar error!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Funzoa @Zarin Mansur Hi, I dont do grammer errors. You may check my other content. The error was intentional. Like how sometimes, people from a non-english region in India, use broken english to convey a message. And you somehow fathom whats being said. So thats a pun intended, whether you get it or not.

Viewer Zarin Mansur calls the use of Indian Englishisms and non-standard English grammar wrong, whereas Funzoa sends a comment (apparently filled with non-standard English to prove his point) that argues that the lyrics he wrote are not full of errors; rather, they strategically deploy language in a way that represents how some Indians speak. Funzoa believes that he doesn’t “do grammar errors” because he is simply representing how English is actually spoken.

In conclusion, a quick scan-through of comments has revealed a surprising array of attitudes towards the use of the language in one of Funzoa’s most popular videos. On one hand, some reacted to the use of accent extremely negatively, finding the video either offensive, annoying, or simply incorrect. Others reacted more positively, praising the author’s effective deployment of language for humorous effect.

What do you all think of the video? Do you think Funzoa is right when says he doesn’t “do grammar errors”? Do you find the video offensive as some viewers did? I’d love to hear your comments.

Jacob is a first-year undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Linguistics. His interests include bilingualism, second language acquisition, code-switching, Bollywood movies, and taking walks around Philly.