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10. I'm Having Trouble Saying 'Flat White'
In a battle now in its fourth decade, Patrick writes about facing fear and challenging it, even in the most banal speaking situations like ordering a bloody flat white...
I’ve been struggling for a while. Sharing that doesn’t really scare me, I believe we should be open about what challenges us. I struggle often and frequently, and when I’m open about it I usually find support, understanding and encouragement. In some ways, though, I live my life in a permanent state of struggle.
It happened a few months ago, one day in a random café I got stuck and stuttered over my order, a flat white, out of the blue. “F… F… Flllaaaa…..Fuh…. Flatwwwwwhhhhhh….. FLAT WHITE”. It completely knocked me. My coffee of choice for countless years, I’ve said it thousands of times in hundreds of different cafes and restaurants around the world with confidence, zero struggle and no fear; it’s never presented itself as an issue before, but that day it was.
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My cheeks flare, rosy and hot, my heart rate is thumping double time. I feel - and probably look - like I’d been caught out in a bare-faced lie, yet I was doing the opposite: living my truth. It’s the slightly perplexed, shocked look of the barista that’s always the killer –– their attention is piqued, noticing something unusual, but they probably don’t notice that you notice they’ve noticed. In a split second they almost always try to disguise their subtle reaction, which is automatic and natural, by shaking it off and acting supremely chill. On a human level they register that drawing attention to struggle may be embarrassing and triggering for the other human, yet, don’t worry, people who stutter are eagle-eyed observers to a fault. Ironically, we don’t miss a beat when it comes to our perceptions, but speech is, well, a whole other rhythm. A stutterer struggling to order a coffee in a cafe is not an everyday occurrence, so it usually sticks out –– and sometimes unfortunately the experience reinforces that you stick out.
I immediately started punishing myself mentally, my brain flooding like a sinking liner taking on water, with feelings of disappointment, guilt, anger and - the worst - shame. Ashamed of how I communicated but, more mentally detrimental, ashamed of subjecting the server to how I communicated (so often us stammerers perceive ourselves as less-than and guilty for how we present, so being total people pleasers we often take on others’ emotional baggage even though it’s absolutely illogical). “Why couldn’t I say something I’ve said a million times? Why now? Why me?” As I sip my flat white at the table, each sip now sadly tainted in bitter distaste through no fault of its own, my mind lingers on the whole experience. I repeat it slow-mo, a couple of times over. “What went wrong? Why did that happen just now?” After a while I begin to ease off on myself and resign the whole thing to memory. “It must have been a fluke,” I reason with myself, offering excuses to replace blame –– “I was tired, I wasn’t focused, I’ve been neglecting my practice”. I conclude: “It’s an off day”.
Yet three days later in another cafe it happens again, then the day after that as well. Not always the same struggle on the same part of the words, but I’m flummoxed as to why this keeps creeping up. Soon enough it seems to happen regularly, no matter how much confidence I approach with each time I’m struggling on the same two words. “F…Laaaaa…. Fuh….. Flat… Waiiii….. Wyyy…. White”. I don’t give up, I get the words out eventually, but something is up. I’ve noticed it yet I’ve kept brushing it off, without tackling it. However, then I start to become cognisant of a pattern: I’ve begun declining going for coffee, and if I do I avoid ordering that menu item, or I just avoid ordering altogether. My fear of the words “flat white” has been building because I’m avoiding it instead of facing it, and now fear is dictating my movements in a worrying way. Here’s where the problem really starts to fester.
I’ve lived with a stammer, or stutter (same thing, just a different label either side of the Atlantic Ocean) since I can remember, tripping through speech since I said my first full sentences. I’ve written about it here and there before, so this isn’t a deep dive into my adventures battling to bring my disordered speech under control. TLDR; over a decade ago - after several rounds of semi-failed speech therapy through my life - I finally found a way to manage and control my stutter via a peer-led programme, The McGuire Programme. It has worked so well for me I’m now a coach and a course instructor, I just instructed my third intensive course last summer in Cork. I’m very successful at it, but I still struggle every now and then and my speech is still a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly work in progress. Ultimately, I’ll never be ‘cured’ because, spoiler alert, there is no cure.
I say I’m in permanent struggle, but the speech struggles I experienced until age 21 is like an earthquake rocking an entire country several times daily compared to the infrequent, annoying, minor bumps in the road my present ‘struggle’ is. I’m no longer consumed by fear and despair by having nothing in my arsenal to support me to fight for control, I have processes and proven methods that work for me –– like thousands upon thousands of others. But struggle still visits every now and then like an unwanted guest overstaying its welcome, and “flat white” has been my unlikely battle for the last few months. It’s frustrating because situations like this have the potential to turn something you really love or enjoy (or something you really need, like repeating your name or phone number) into something you avoid and hate. So I’ve been working on saying flat white over and over, as much as I can, until the point of boredom, and what follows is why.
It’s usually names. First name. Surname. Full name. Names of family members, partners, siblings, colleagues, teachers. There’s no one common thread in stuttering because everyone who stutters is a complex cocktail of diverse experiences, fears and challenges in communication. But, to chalk it down and widely generalise, almost everyone who stutters struggles on their own name(s) in some way –– mostly because they can’t employ one of their many tricks and change it, though in extreme circumstances some sadly do. Super sleuths at word substitution and being ten steps ahead of everyone else, those who stutter are so clever and cute they’d impress MacGyver with their verbal ingenuity, until they get found out or caught off guard like a villain unmasked in an episode of Scooby Doo.
But, of course, it’s not only names, it’s numbers as well. It’s addresses, job titles and college courses. It’s the street you live on and stating your employer’s company. It’s your favourite menu item you’re unable to order at your local takeaway. It’s picking up the phone to call a taxi, it’s asking for help in a shop or requesting the bill in a restaurant. It’s the simple act of ordering a bloody coffee. The everyday interactions, some the simplest and most basic of all, can also be the most debilitating and it’s so frustrating and exhausting. Something almost everyone else can do - including a little kid - terrorising you with its difficulty.
We teach something called overkill in the method I work with. Similar to getting “back on the horse” or facing your fears it’s important to not allow fear, trauma or negative speaking experiences hold you back, as fear is the rotten root out of which stuttering shoots. Stuttering is the physical expression of something happening psychologically, the physical and the psychological are intertwined. This approach squares up to face fear, and challenges struggle, head-on, repeating the challenging word/sound/situation over and over until - as the name suggests - you’ve overkilled it and it’s no longer fearful. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of examples of controlled speech using correct technique rather than stammering out of control and allowing a stutter to hold you captive. Practice ad nauseam, taking time, energy, effort, patience, dedication and sacrifice. However, the reward is worth it, because living with the alternative is not really living. I really just want to go into a cafe and order my coffee of choice, or look down a menu and choose the thing I *want* rather than the thing I can say. Maybe I want to ask the shop assistant for something’s price, rather than relying on Googling it on the shop’s website, or cold calling a service provider to broker a better deal on my energy. But mostly I just want to enjoy the whole experience of a coffee in a cafe.
Think about it: If you’re thrown from a horse, the right thing to do is get back up in that saddle as soon as physically possible –– the longer it’s left the harder it gets, until it’s been so long you’ll never draw the courage to do it ever again. For arachnophobes, until they face their fear and hold or be exposed to a spider in close quarters they will always be rooted in fear. Both these examples tell the same story: you can significantly reduce the fear or trauma by taking control and strapping yourself in the driving seat with courage and conviction. Fear doesn’t just dissipate and naturally melt away. Inaction is never a solution to a problem, it’s actually the scaffolding surrounding the cause keeping it secure. So, therefore, action is the solution.
Now, the problem with struggling on a coffee order is, really, what I needed to do was go into cafes and proactively work on this challenging set of words using a different mentality and the techniques learned… but there’s a limit on how many cafes there are where I live and a limit on how much coffee one can consume in a day. Adding to that, I don’t have the bank balance to pay for 25 coffees a day that I order and dispose of without drinking. Waste infuriates me, too, so even if I could afford it it wouldn’t be an option. The approach I’ve learned is an intensive one –– putting in the time and effort consistently, consecutively and with enough intensity to ensure it works, and then lasts. I thought to myself: “I could maybe go to 3 cafes a day?” Sure, that would work as long as I did it everyday for a prolonged period of time, but it wasn’t ideal, so I needed to be creative. I picked up the phone and I started calling cafes, all over Ireland.
From when they opened and during the morning through the busy lunch rush and right up to when they close in the afternoon. Quick, concise calls, lasting no longer than 60 seconds. “Patrick Hanlon speaking, How much is your flat white?; Patrick Hanlon here, do you do a flat white with alternative milks?; Could you tell me is a flat white included in the meal deal?” In one hour I could rack up 50 calls pretty easily.
I mapped it out on a spreadsheet. Mostly because I didn’t want to call the same cafe twice, but also because I began to get intrigued at the different prices I was being told, so I noted them down as often as I remembered. 10 calls done, then 50, 100, then 200… Each one pushing me further along in this little project, but also enlightening me: the price difference was actually quite stark. How much would you pay for a flat white?
Around €2.80 seemed to be the cheapest, found in three locations, all in Galway as it happens –– Grind in Briarhill, Nourish in Barna and at Roastery Lane in the city. Of the places I called in Donegal, most sat closer to €3 and those who offered alternative milks didn’t seem to charge for them, which was nice. Naturally the capital city was the most expensive location, Kaph on Dublin’s Drury Street was a whopping €4 and also the rudest interaction –– dismissive, abrupt and unhelpful, which is a shame as it’s a cafe I used to go to quite a bit. The White Moose Cafe was another strange interaction, a manager high-jacking the call with a curt “we don’t give out our prices over the phone” to a very simple customer query. Odd.
Most of the staff who answered were blissfully oblivious as to why I might have been making such a specific call. However, some small cafe owners kept me on the phone, curious as to why I was asking. Probably expecting I was a competitor price-matching, yet heartened when I explained what I was doing but more importantly why I was doing it. Some of them told stories and shared their own challenges with public speaking and pushing their comfort zones. This whole process is as much about desensitising the speaker to the situation and the other person’s reaction as it is about gaining control and confidence.
I didn’t stick only to the phone, each time I was out and about and in the vicinity of a cafe I would work on these words, taking note of the prices too. The phone is a brilliant tool but can be a crutch in and of itself as you’re not face-to-face with who you’re speaking to, or surrounded by other customers or people potentially listening in. The in-person experiences were naturally a touch more nervy at the start, but I had changed my mentality to one of positivity and goal-oriented –– “I’m excited to practice my controlled technique and also I have a job to do, to impress myself and learn what the price is, oh, also, don’t forget to really enjoy this coffee!,” I told myself each time, instead of going in faced with dread. It’s alarming how quickly fear can take hold when it goes unchallenged.
Slowly but surely I began to feel a sense of control building, like those first pops of air burped through the surface of porridge bubbling stodgily on the hob telling you progress is being made. I threw as much as I could at each interaction. I wasn’t letting these words - flat white - away from my grip. I took my time, used different techniques, asked the question in various ways –– making my way towards confidence and control. Every interaction wasn’t always perfect, but the more I did it the better it felt.
Each one topped up the bank account in my head depositing positive experiences. Across several days, I began to rack up more and more examples of speaking in control, which then start to outweigh that handful of negative past experiences when I wasn’t in control. Slowly replacing “I can’t” with “I can” and reinforcing with “I will”.
I’d say I got 90% of the way there, and then life got in the way as a busy freelancer, so my practice slipped a bit. I’m still working on clinching that last 10% to feel 100% confidence around ‘flat white’, but I’m a small ocean beyond where I started on this particular project of self-improvement.
I turned my speaking personality around over a decade ago when I joined this particular programme, but this is just one example demonstrating I’m very much still a work in progress –– and these kind of road blocks do come along every so often. I could write about countless words or situations. I instruct three-day courses to teach this stuff, which is a mammoth undertaking of time and energy, as well as being a regular ‘coach’ to others on phone calls and zoom sessions, but I’m the first to admit I am not perfect. Even as an instructor, of course I have my bad days, my old behaviours creep back in, I’m challenged regularly by the very nature of my job. But one thing remains clear to me: the more work I put in for things that are personally really important the more I benefit. The way I see it is: no one gets worse by applying themselves and working harder on a goal. It won’t happen overnight, but holding yourself accountable and putting in the time and effort keeps topping up that account balance.
I realise this doesn’t read as an essay on food, but for me it is –– my experiences with speech are intrinsically linked to my food experiences. Ordering in restaurants, communicating about food in interviews or indeed interviewing others in food, engaging in small talk at events, pitching ideas to potential clients. My palate and my voice share the same space. My articulators (tongue, teeth, lips) are employed both when I talk and when I eat. I can’t do my job without eating and I can’t do my job without talking, but by having a stammer I am disadvantaged by the hand I’ve been dealt, thus it takes a lot of work to tackle that –– a lot more work than someone who is fluent and naturally never thinks twice about how they communicate, it just happens. Networking can sometimes be a nightmare. Being flappy at the jaw and bubbly and talkative is almost a pre-requisite in the field I work in, and as such I stick out because I’m not. I’m often perceived as ‘shy’ or ‘quiet’, maybe even aloof, yet it’s because keeping up at the same pace and with the same vigour fires through several canisters of mental energy. My speech and my self-confidence (in fact my whole mental health) are two loops on the same string. If I have a series of negative speaking experiences it can, and has, affected my appetite or my mood for dining in a restaurant or for painting on a smile and attending an event or press trip.
This whole story started with having a flat white, a thing I love. It's silky microfoam, served at that ideal tepid temperature in a beautiful ceramic cup (extra points for the the vessel being warmed beforehand, and served atop a saucer). I love experiencing that beautiful equilibrium –– the unique flavour profiles unlocked within a particular batch of deeply-roasted beans complemented by the rich, sweet creaminess of the dairy addition. The varying levels of ‘latte art’, from hearts and tulips to indiscriminate blobs, each has its own charm. I don’t want to give up any of that. I don’t want to avoid and I don’t want to be fearful of something I adore. But just like getting back on the horse or holding a spider, I needed to talk myself out of negativity and face fear in order to truly live. In order to safeguard something which gives me joy, like this particular food experience –– and sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to stuttering, it’s the annoying simple, straightforward, everyday experiences that suddenly crop up on a person who stutters and threaten them.
I needed to follow intention with action, or I could have easily decided to never have a flat white again. And then when I had changed my order to another drink with different letters or sounds, like a latte or cappuccino, and struggle reared its head again, I’d then have to avoid that word as well and give up another food and drink experience. That’s no way to live.
This is not a story I share about adversity and in search of sympathy, or worse, pity. I’m sharing a story about facing fear, challenging it and not allowing yourself to be held back, even if it rears its rotten head on something so simple as ordering a coffee.
Our personal struggles are so often concealed from public view and experience, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of what challenges us. On the other side of fear let me tell you: the grass really is greener.
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