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Best Uses of Voice and Body Language

What About Ums and Ahs When Conversing?


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		  What About Ums and Ahs When Conversing? 

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.  


Loren Ekroth ©2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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