Thursday, May 22, 2014

Twitter's Favorite Joke About Broken Legs and Public Speaking is a Problem

By Steven S. Vrooman

There's a joke about public speaking that gets retold and retweeted in waves the past two years. It shows up on tumblr and instagram, and likely on facebook, as well. Here's a snapshot of the most heavily RTed versions of this:
I can understand why all these nervous high school students want to share this joke. I know how nervous we get.

But here's why this joke should go away:

1. Obviously, the joke oversimplifies issues of physical disability and anxiety disorder in unhelpful ways. You can see how these arguments play out on tumblr here & here & here & here & here & here. (<-- I know this looks like the last set of links you want to wade through, but it is an interesting discussion). I have taught and helped students with diagnosed social anxiety issues who were under a physician's care many times. There are a huge diversity of anxiety issues that we are pretending are just one THING, "Social Anxiety Disorder," that is as specific and unvarying as "broken legs." Anxiety comes in many different forms. Most people's speaking anxiety can be improved.

2. The joke creates this image of the world:
The nervous people, like the kid with broken legs sitting out in PE, are a small minority punished by the cool kids and the system of school that doesn't understand their issues. The assumption is that most people are totally fine with public speaking. So if you are nervous about it, you are some kind of abused minority. But decades of research has shown that something like 90% of people have some degree of speaking anxiety, and almost half of people have pretty severe anxiety.

The real picture should look the complete opposite:
The reason for public speaking class is that most people are nervous. It's not a club of extroverts all smiling the way people only do at the end of pharmaceutical advertisements.

Jokes reveal things about the ways we are thinking. In this case, they reveal and contribute to our collective inability to deal with speaking anxiety in constructive ways. It's okay to always hate this stuff. But doesn't it feel just a little bit better knowing we're all hating it with you?

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