Stop Feeling Bad About Saying “uh” and “uh”

We all have the conventional wisdom that insertion words like “mmm”, “mmm” and especially the intimidating “like” don’t have a place in conversation. They make you seem dumb! They diminish your credibility! But, according to the linguist, filler words serve an important function, and we shouldn’t be so quick to try to exclude them from the conversation.

Anfield, professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney and author of How We Speak: The Inner Job of Conversation , writes in Quartz that filler words can help you keep words in conversation. This applies both in a friendly conversation and in work meetings, when part of the conversation is to agree on transitions between speakers. As Anfield writes, “Shared Conversation Rules require that we use traffic lights that regulate the flow of social interaction.” And insert words are one of those signals.

If you’re not a real moron, you use the speaker’s silence as a hint that he’s finished with what he’s saying, and it’s fair to intervene. Okay, now imagine that the speaker has given up the insertion words. They formulate a thought, figure out what they want to say, and instead of filling that space, they just pause. Silence. So, of course, some impatient beaver rushes in, mistaking silence for the end of the speaker’s thoughts. As Anfield put it

The placeholder is the traffic light that explains your delay: “Wait, I’m not done yet, normal transmission will resume soon.” If the other person cooperates as usual, then he will refrain from transferring the right to vote.

Of course, you can use more “decent” filler, such as “now,” “so,” or “good.” But language habits are deeply ingrained, and honestly, don’t worry about it.

Anfield points out that while insertion words are useful in conversation, this usefulness does not extend to public speaking. When holding the floor, you don’t have to worry about – hopefully – people jumping when you pause. And public speaking involves a lot of fluency and a sense of mastery of the material. Even if you speak impromptu, you want to convey a sense of mastery that the placeholder cues associated with finding your words can dampen.

You still don’t want to pause too long, letting the silence continue while you find your next thought. To that end, Anfield offers a solution, straight from the heart, why we use filler words at all: slow down. Here you do not need to keep up with the quick parry of the conversation – you can set the pace. And by making it slower, you give yourself the opportunity to formulate your thoughts. You will also look like the relaxed and authoritative speaker you want to be.

Linguist explains why you can say “mmm” and “mmm” | Quartz


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