Stop using those filler words! Hmm...


To "Uh" is Human, To "Um" is, You Know... Kind of Divine

I've never felt comfortable with hard and fast rules. Rules like "eliminate all fillers from your speech." (Or don't use incomplete sentences to expand on a thought! ;) Toastmasters  serves many valuable purposes, but the idea of "um" counting, for example, always just reinforced in me a slightly snobbish pride in being able to recognize a speaker who has been "Toastmaster-ized." It's because there's often a somewhat practiced, detached from the human, element to their delivery. We talk a lot about authenticity, but is being "perfect" authentic? Maybe even more importantly, is it relatable?

Linguists dissect and analyze everything in the realm of language, which of course includes the filler words and discourse markers that pepper our everyday speech. You might find some of the findings interesting if you are indeed interested in this sort of thing.

To begin with, utterances such as "um" and "uh" are referred to as filled pauses, disfluency markers or hesitation markers, while words such as "You know, I mean, Well, Of course, So, Like" are called discourse markers. OK...

They do different work for us communicatively and conversationally.

Many people see these linguistic elements as useless, but both play a vital role in our communication, adding a layer of nuance to our perfectly imperfect communication. This blog is confined to the discussion of the former--the "uh"s and "um"s. 

Humans are not born perfect communicators, and creative expression naturally takes consideration and work to find the words to formulate our thoughts into well-constructed sentences. These filled pauses and hesitation markers-- "um" and "uh" might sound like hesitation, but they actually tell listeners we're actively building thoughts. The more complex the idea we're trying to convey, the more likely these sounds appear. Imagine explaining a new concept versus rattling off your grocery list. You'd naturally use more "ums" for the complex topic because your brain is working overtime to process and explain the information. Studies show that listeners may actually tune in more when they hear an "um" because they know something original, carefully thought out or important is coming next.

A study done in 2023 showed that using "um"s in conversation was associated with high alliance interactions predicting empathy, social support, and positive outcomes. 

Context matters

This is the case as long as they're not repetitive and detract from the overall message a person is trying to convey.  In casual conversation, a person "um"-ing repeatedly might be perceived as less familiar or knowledgeable about the topic, nervous, or just... inarticulate. In this case, awareness of the pattern is necessary in order to consciously replace the sounds with a good old-fashioned pause. 

It's quite evident when a speaker has or has not prepared before a formal meeting or presentation. Someone who has spent time "traveling through" their information, practicing the wording and flow of complex ideas, will naturally have fewer noticeable "ums" and "uhs" in their speech. Familiar material and wording necessitate less cognitive thinking on the spot. In this case, a speaker using too many fillers does run the risk of coming across as unprepared, nervous or not credible.

"Um" vs. "Uh": The Differences

The choice between "um" and "uh" can be surprisingly insightful. "Uh" often appears when a specific word is on the tip of our tongue, like forgetting the name of a sport (uh...lacrosse?). It's like a placeholder while your brain searches for the missing piece.

"Um," in addition to being used as a filler to find one's thoughts and wording has an additional role. It might signal you're about to disagree or offer potentially unwelcome information. Think about saying, "Um, not really a fan of horror movies." The "um" there prepares the listener for a potential point of contention.

Disfluencies and the Art of Communication

Even the masters understood the power of the well-placed disfluency. Winston Churchill, whom I've written about in past blogs, knew the power of strategically placed pauses and actually wrote side notes in his speech notes like "stammer here" and "pause here." These weren't mistakes; they were deliberate tools to add emphasis, humanity and weight to his words.

Pablo Picasso's quote encapsulates the idea of disfluencies well. Understanding the role they play in communication allows us to use them strategically, adding that touch of humanity and nuance to our speech.

Men, Women, and the "Um" and "Uh" Prejudice

There's an interesting social layer to disfluencies as well. Studies show women and young people tend to use "um" more frequently. This has led some to perceive them as less competent speakers. However, research suggests this is more about "um" evolving into a discourse marker for women and young people, signaling they're about to make a point that might contradict what's been said before. Women and young people are often the trendsetters when it comes to language.

The Bottom Line: Embrace the occasional "Um" and "Uh"

The next time you catch yourself uttering an "um" or "uh," don't fret! It just means your brain is actively building your message. These disfluencies are like progress markers in a construction zone - a sign that something interesting and thought-provoking is being built, in your perfectly imperfect human brain. In a casual conversation, a sprinkle of disfluencies can add a natural flow, so long as they're not a distraction. In a formal presentation, it's wise to keep them in check for a polished, professional delivery.

What do you think? What are your thoughts on "uh"s and "um"s?