Bob struggled with a lisp his whole life. To avoid sounding like a fourth grader, the chief financial officer at a well-known bank would deftly avoid words ending in “s,” like “deliverables” and “ellipsis.” Stress only amplified the impediment though, and after a series of “mergers” and “acquisitions” (also to be avoided), Bob was asked to deliver an impromptu year-end earnings report that, mercilessly, referenced “deposit accounts” throughout. Following the presentation Bob returned to his office to find a devastating email from a board member: “Do you realize how distracting your tongue defect is?”
Bob’s worst fear — that he wasn’t being taken seriously — had been realized. So he frantically scoured the web for therapists and landed on John D. Moore, a licensed mental health counselor and professor of business and organizational leadership at American Military University. Moore says Bob was “riddled with shame” when he stumbled into his office, struggling to maintain eye contact. “Here was a wealthy, well-known man with a wife and grandkids. Even coming in to talk about a lisp was courageous.”
Moore lept into triage mode, including “cognitive reversal therapy,” typically reserved for tourette syndrome patients trying to mitigate tics, and extensive roleplay designed to reverse how one speaks, sounds and is perceived by others. Similarly, he prescribed a series of “exposure therapies” in which Bob asked random bank tellers where they kept the “deposit slips.” He purposefully peppered the word “deliverables” into conversations with strangers on the train, and called a dermatologist to inquire about his “psoriasis.” Before long, Bob was mastering the delivery and gaining confidence — so much so that he was promoted to CEO of another financial organization.
“These are very successful alpha males in high power positions [with lisps],” explains speech pathologist Melissa James, director of Well Said Speech Therapy for Adults in Toronto. “We see professors, investment bankers and stock brokers whose primary concern is being perceived as immature, childish or unintelligent.”
There are two types of common lisps, James explains: frontal lisps, in which “s” and “z” sounds are pronounced like “th”; and lateral lisps, in which air escapes out of the sides of the mouth, causing slushy “s” and “z” sounds like Sean Connery. For both types, the success rate of lisp therapy is high, James notes. “It’s not a complicated treatment. If someone commits to practicing, they’ll almost certainly resolve the impediment.”
Lisps emerge in early childhood and most parents promptly remedy them with speech therapy. Some however — like James’ client Matthew, a 46-year-old psychology professor in Montreal — fall through the cracks. He was regularly called a “faggot” back in the 1980s. “It didn’t make me feel good,” he tells me on the phone, adding that bullies made fun of him relentlessly for “talking like a two-year-old.”
I wonder why I say my S’s that way? he asked himself.
Likely because it’s easier to stick your tongue out and say “th” than it is to bunch it up and create a small channel of airflow. “S” and “z” are among the last eight consonant sounds to be acquired in normal development, which is why young children commonly have a frontal lisp. Comedies often employ lisps — think Daffy Duck or the lisping physicist on The Big Bang Theory — to depict characters as lovingly juvenile, foolish, silly, idiotic and careless. All of which, of course, are highly undesirable traits in corporate C suites.
Matthew is among James’ sizable adult male lisp clientele. She sees about 80 patients a week with all kinds of speech impediments, more than half of which are men. Of those, 10 percent have lisps, so James regularly works with four adult lisping men, the majority of whom are straight.
While a 2008 study found that 42 percent of men who self-identify as gay have a lisp, sociolinguistics professor Dennis R. Preston insists the “gay lisp” isn’t even a lisp, linguistically speaking. It’s something else. “The sound associated with gay men or effeminate behavior is quite different from a lisp,” he tells me. “The ‘s’ is targeted more toward the teeth and produces a higher frequency sound so instead of sit, it sounds like sssthit, with the stream of air running down the channel of the tongue hitting the teeth rather than just above the teeth.” The strident “s” is nearly always a learned characteristic, Preston notes, as is its association with gayness and being effeminate.
Besides, plenty of hetero alpha males heroes had lisps. Moses burned his mouth as a child and ended up with a permanent frontal lisp. Thomas Jefferson’s lisp caused him to hate public speaking so much that he sent his 1801 State of the Union address to Congress. John Adams spoke with a lisp because he stubbornly refused to wear dentures. Catalonian Spaniards’ sluggish tongues allegedly developed in 1350 when imitating their beloved lisping King, Pedro of Castile. Humphrey Bogart received his trademark scar and lisp after his naval ship, the USS Leviathan, was shelled — though some claim studios made up the story to inject glamor. Winston Churchill recognized the power of words early in his career and practiced enunciation and wore partial dentures to overcome a childhood lisp. In terms of more contemporary examples: Michael Phelps was bullied as a kid for having a lisp and big ears. Same for Russell Simmons, Reggie Bush, Anthony Kiedis and Mike Tyson, who describes his younger self as “a pudgy, effeminately-shy kid with a lisp.”
More than anything, men with lisps tell executive life coach Neil Bierbaum that they want to be taken seriously. “I work a lot with mid- to senior executives in financial services, banking and IT sectors,” he tells me. “Similar to personality and charisma, the voice is seen as a signifier of professional and financial success and therefore confidence can be greatly minimized by a lisp.” That’s why, like Moore and James, Bierbaum focuses on strengthening clients’ confidence and belief in their words. “Look at Bono,” he suggests. “He’s got a mediocre voice, but sheer confidence overrides it. Lisps are exactly the same.”
Fortunately, Bierbaum says we’re far more accepting of people’s differences than in the past, particularly in a professional environment where people are focused on business outcomes, not personal flaws. And yet, he notes, “The trauma of high school persists.”
Some, like my friend Tatiana (and me, incidentally), are curiously attracted to lisping gentlemen. “I’ve never been into cookie-cutter guys,” she says. “So I think a lisp can be charming and interesting — like the vocal equivalent of gapped teeth.” Rapper, writer and poetry slammer George Watsky leans into the image of lovable lispers in his poem “S for Lisp,” which went viral in 2010. “If you suppose your speech is normal,” he says, “then your impediment is listening.”
“See,” he continues, “I’ve heard some steamy stories of oral sex, but I’m not stretching to say one time, I made a lady climax by speaking an S-y section of a Shakespeare sonnet in her split legs’ general direction. I spit sexier than Summer Sanders, Sarah Silverman, Susan Sarandon, Sissy Spacek, Sally Struthers and Selena Spooning in a six-way same-sex all S celebrity civil union.You should see that I will not desist. I’m sorry! ’Cause see, if you don’t like a subtle lisp. Then you can simply suck on thissssssss.”
Easy for him to say.