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Here’s how to handle the situation appropriately next time.

Arielle Weg
July 06, 2018

Even after closing 8,000 stores for racial-bias training and news of a racial slur written on a coffee cup—Starbucks employees still appear to be struggling basic human decency. A Facebook post circulating the Internet exposes a Starbucks barista who mocked a customer’s stutter. Formally stated corporate ethics aside, by most social standards, I think ridiculing a complete stranger’s involuntary speech impediment is considered, at the very least, incredibly rude. Clearly, that sensitivity training accomplished a ton.

According to the original Facebook post, the Starbucks employee teased the customer, by referring to him as “S-s-s-sam” and even included the extra letters on his cup. Sam later wrote to Starbucks to complain. The response was a simple apology for his feeling disrespected based on how his name was written, and they offered him a five dollar gift card. After word spread and the story garnered some media buzz, The Washington Post reports that the employee has been terminated and Starbucks is investigating the incident.

Photo courtesy of Tan Lekwijit via Facebook

OK. I get it. I do—the first time you notice someone’s stutter, it can catch you off guard. In the same way finding out a friend is dyslexic or has a hearing aid can be. But these disabilities are in no way a reflection of someone’s mental abilities or character. I wouldn’t think this would need to be said to someone over the age of 9, but… just because someone can’t read as quickly or easily as you can doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in learning. Just because someone can’t hear well doesn’t mean they aren’t listening. And of course, just because someone can’t speak fluently doesn’t mean they don’t have something important to say.

See, this story is one I’ve seen my brother, who has a severe stutter, experience a hundred times over. The employee was doing his or her job—asking for the customer’s order and name. The only difference was this time the customer stumbled on his words. Specifically his name, which can oftentimes be the most difficult word for stutterers to get out. Instead of just letting it go—the barista felt inclined to embarrass this person based on something atypical, something that very possibly caused the barista to experience a flash feeling of awkwardness or discomfort, that this customer couldn’t control.

This sort of embarrassment, and the threat of it, leads those who experience stuttering to change their words in order to make other people comfortable. My brother often gives a different name in these situations to avoid saying his own. The thing is, verbally stumbling over your own name is harmless to others; senselessly humiliating someone… well, that does damage. Most of us can relate to the idea of not wanting to be treated differently, much less treated demeaningly, or publicly called out for something we’re personally insecure about. Maybe try being mindful of that as you go out into the world, where you’ll interact with other human beings. It’s not a matter of feeling pity, but actively practicing empathy—no matter how different the person across the counter may seem.

Patience is key when it comes to speaking to someone with a speech impediment. In food service, or anywhere else in your life, if you come across someone with a speech impediment just wait patiently for them to speak. Acknowledge that you understand what is happening instead of poking fun, mocking, or even attempting to talk for them. If someone in front of you was in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t pick them up and carry them just so you could get somewhere faster, would you? Just be patient and kind. It’s really not that big of a deal.

I remember countless times watching my brother get stuck ordering at restaurants, resulting in him simply pointing to the dish on the menu. If he tried to say a word, and was determined to get it out, the server might nervously laugh or stare uncomfortably while my family shifted in our seats, awaiting the words to get out. But just because he can get around his problem by changing his name or pointing to the menu doesn’t mean he should. Again, I do understand; if you’ve never encountered someone who stutters, you might be uncomfortable and unsure how to react. Spreading awareness about issues, like stuttering, that can catch people by surprise, and training employees not only in racial bias, but in showing respect and acceptance towards those who are different (be it a fellow colleague or a customer) is the key. Because, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but… we’re all different from each other; that’s why you have to write a different name from one cup of iced coffee to the next.

I’ve watched my brother, and plenty of others, struggle with stuttering since I was a kid. Like any disability he’s tried hours of speech therapy, used ear pieces to help him speak slower, and practiced time and time again. But despite his inability to always speak clearly, I’ve also seen him thrive as a leader and spokesperson. He takes every opportunity he can to spread awareness about stuttering, and I’m impressed every day with how he doesn’t let it get in his way or make him feel demoralized. Nobody, not even a jerk Starbucks barista, can tear him down.

According to the National Stuttering Association, about one percent of the population stutters, which includes approximately three million Americans. It’s even present in the popular culture. King George VI’s struggle with stuttering is explored in The King’s Speech and one of Anna Kendrick’s debut films, Rocket Science, follows a stuttering boy on the debate team.

In the final scene of Rocket Science, the main character finds himself standing in a pizza parlor. He struggles to say the word pizza without getting stuck, and stammers for a few uncomfortable moments to finally spit the word out. There is no laughter, and though the man working at the counter looks a little confused, he stays calm and hands the boy his food. It’s with this display of genuine humanity that he is able to walk away, proud with three slices of pizza. And receiving the food you order with respect is a right everyone should have.

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