I am a researcher at a university. I have supervised some Master's theses, but never a work project.

Today, I informed my first ever student assistant that she is hired. She is a nice girl and has more work experience than the average student. But she also has a strange form of stutter. She can talk smoothly for some sentences, but at some point, she starts searching for a word. At this point, she lays her had to a side, and her eyes roll up, showing only the whites, while she is trying to say the word. This can continue for up to a minute. The fact that we are communicating in her third language probably doesn't help either.

Co-workers who have taught her warned me what to expect, so I wasn't shocked the first time it happened during her job interview. I also asked less questions than I would have if she hadn't had the problem. I just patiently sat there while she searched for the word, and there was only one time she gave it up, else she was able to recover and say the word at some point. They also told me that she usually just tries to speak as little as possible, but they don't really know more than that.

Later, she will be able to do most of her work by herself. But at the beginning, we will probably have to discuss a lot. And I am afraid that especially at the beginning, when she isn't yet at ease around me, she will have the most problems talking.

My experience from the interview was this: When we are talking and the tic happens, I am feeling silly and inadequate. I try to sit there with an encouraging smile and wait, but have no idea how she is interpreting my behaviour. I can think of several things I could do in the future, and have no idea whether she would be glad for it, or consider it rude. What I have thought of until now is:

  • If I have a good guess of what she is trying to say, I can prompt her with the word. But I don't know if she would like that, and my guesses aren't that good (unlike some stutterers, she doesn't pronounce the first part of a word before getting the tic).
  • I could offer her to converse by instant messaging, even though she is sitting in the same room. It would be a very thorough solution if it works, but also one which feels even more awkward than the rest.
  • I could offer her to talk in English, because it is her second language. Maybe she grasps less for words in it, so this could lower the frequency of the tics.
  • The approach I would like best is that I just directly ask her how she would like me to behave, and whether there is something we could do to make the situation better. I mean, she is aware that I am aware of her tic, so why not speak openly about it? But I am afraid that she would consider such open speaking rude, and I don't want to be considered rude by somebody I will be working with a lot.

It doesn't help that most people consider me very blunt. My friends have grown used to my sometimes tactless questions, and know that I often don't realise that they will have a problem answering them until after I have asked them and noticed their reaction. But discussing such a sensitive topic with a person who is still practically a stranger, and presumably quite shy, will really be very hard for me.

So I wonder, how should I react. Should I ask her for her preferences? Or suggest ideas of my own? Or say nothing and treat her with patience, hoping that we'll get the communication done somehow? And if I decide that I should talk to her about it, when should I bring it up? Is it better to give her some time to get more comfortable about working and communicating with me, or will waiting look bad, as if I have been hoping that the problem will be minor, but have noticed that it hampers our work? And if I should wait, than for how long should I wait?

  • Thank you for your answers. By now, we are getting along well. First, she was less affected in a normal working situation than in the interview. Second, she didn't mind discussing it. I think that helped most.
    – rumtscho
    May 23, 2011 at 16:29

3 Answers 3


I can only imagine what I would do:

  1. Try to understand her. While asking her about how should you behave will be probably helpfull, nevertheless only understanding her would provide you with an overall idea of what to do in almost any situation. There is nothing wrong with people trying to understand each other so don't hesitate to speak about it. Reveal your intentions about understanding. That way, you will probably know if she has problems with finding a word or if she just goes stuck anyway. First case comes with solutions like prompting, rephrasing, using English or partially English (for a lost word only), hand writing, using IM application. Latter case means you will probably have to wait until tic is over.
  2. Assure her of your good intentions. It may be the case that this particular tic is connected with stressfull situation or conversation subject she doesn't feel convenient enough. Try building an atmosphere of safe conversation and observe her in chit-chat situations.
  3. Tell her what your worries are. As you stated:
    • you feel silly and inadequate because you are not sure how to behave
    • you worry about communication quality
    • you would like to think about solution rather than a situation itself
    • you don't want to be considered rude

For me it looks more than fair enough!


I would be honest and ask her for her preferences.

If it starts to affect her work, invite her to come up with solutions. Perhaps she finds it easier to communicate over IM or email, or to draw diagrams.

At the moment, you are possibly feeling uneasy around her, and expecting something to go wrong. She will be picking up on this, perhaps unconsciously, and it will increase the unease between the two of you until it's resolved. It may be better to resolve it sooner than later!

You also presume that she's shy. What if you're wrong?

I'm slightly deaf, and knowing that people are prepared to work around that - tapping me on the shoulder rather than just using my name, for instance - really helps me know that I can be productive and useful. I hope that she would feel the same way.


My first thought when reading this was why did you hire this person? Not to sound rude/judgmental, but the only indication of why you may have hired this person is because she has "more work experience" than the average student (explicit deduction), and she may be smart due to the fact that she can speak 3 languages (implicit deduction).

Why would you hire a person whom your co-workers told you speaks as little as possible? So much of being a college assistant is to learn from the one modeling the role (you). Wouldn't you want there to be lots of collaboration, discussion, and communication going on between you and your new assistant?

But! To answer your question, you need to be open, honest, and discuss (or potentially lead) a working agreement between you and your new assistant. You want her to learn as much as she can and it would be a disservice to both you and her for there to be communication blockers to her learning success and for you to receive the needed work that you hired her for.

  • 3
    "why did you hire this person?": What an intolerant question... Here is someone really capable and valuable, and because of this actually little problem, she couldn't do the job? If you look for the perfect candidate, you will be in for searching a looooooooong time! May 5, 2011 at 15:22
  • 1
    @traroth - Not my point at all. I said that I wasn't trying to be rude/judgmental/intolerant." Forget the TIC for a moment. Simply put: Would you hire a person who doesn't want to collaborate or speak a lot in a position that requires such communication needs? May 5, 2011 at 15:48

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