ConversationMatters

What About Ums and Ahs When Conversing?

from Best Uses of Voice and Body Language

by Loren Ekroth, Ph.D.

Anyone who takes a public speaking course or is a member of a Toastmasters club quickly learns that filled pauses — those ahs and ers and ums — should be eliminated because they make you appear unprepared. But what about such filled pauses in ordinary conversation?

Well, yes and no. As language researchers have discovered, speakers of all languages use such sounds during pauses in their talk. For example, Brits commonly use uh and umm, Swedes eh, ooh, oh, Hebrew speakers ehhh, Mandarin speakers neige (NEH-guh) and Japanese ano (ah-no).

Downsides of filled pauses

One downside of filled pauses is that they tend to make the speaker look hesitant or reluctant or unsure. If one has a need to look certain and prepared — as in a job interview — the addition of many ums and ahhs would detract from credibility.

Another downside is that it may be harder to follow a speaker who rambles along with distracting fillers such as“like . . .” and “ya know.” Such indirectness can cause impatience in the listener, who wants the speaker to “Get to the point!”

Filled pauses not always negative

Filled pauses are not necessarily negative, however. I think of William F. Buckley, founder of The National Review and longtime television host. His talk was peppered with a wide array of filled pauses, but they did not seem to detract from his credibility, probably because he was so provocative and interesting. His rambling style became almost his oral signature.

Moreover, filled pauses do convey meaning. As Liz Shriberg, a research psychologist at S.R.I. International in Menlo Park, CA says, “When you realize these things are distributed in very clean ways and have a very elegant structure, then you can see that they are not garbage at all.”

Famed lawyer Clarence Darrow disarmed his legal adversaries and seduced juries with an off- handed style of speech that included some of these filled pauses. Although he may have come across as somewhat awkward, he appeared sincere and unrehearsed, thereby increasing his credibility.

The “Valley Girl” speech-style so often caricatured in the media had a specific social value: It demonstrated that the speaker was one of the group by talking the “in” way. Sometimes the most effective way to gain acceptance by any social group is to talk just like the others.

Even educated persons um and ahh

Highly educated persons are not immune from using filled pauses in their speech, even during lectures. Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California-San Diego, counted these among professors giving lectures and found that humanities professors say “you know” and “uh” 4.85 times per minute, social scientists 3.84 and natural scientists 1.39 times. (This, he suggested, shows that humanities folks have more expressive options from which to choose.)

My own observations lead me to conclude that we are generally more effective when our pauses are un-filled, with few ums and ahhs. That is my personal preference, both when talking and when listening. They are not necessary to be thoughtful or even to appear thoughtful, and they can be distractions that create misunderstanding.