Can’t Stop Saying “Um” or “Uh”? You’re Not Alone …

I was quoted in a popular article in Quartz on learning how to use filler words better. (UPDATE: My comments on filler words also were published in New York Magazine and Lifehacker.)

Here is an excerpt:

This is not a new phenomenon (the earliest use has been dated back to 1469), and it’s not exclusive to the English language. Filler words appear in every language and every culture,” says Steven D. Cohen, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Baltimore. The English um, for example, has a Korean equivalent, eum and a French counterpart, euh. According to Cohen, people around the globe are constantly using filler words, making it a “pervasive habit.”

Despite this, filler words typically have a bad rep. Overusing the word like, for example, stereotypically gives off an airhead vibe, while saying uh and um can make you seem hesitant, insecure or unconfident. A conversation packed with these unnecessary interjections can be distracting and imply scattered thought. Many people feel they clutter speech, can undermine your credibility, and are considered unbecoming in professional settings. Cohen, who believes there is no place for disfluency in our everyday language, finds filler words “impede our ability to speak with power” and “become interrupters that detract from our message” …

But research conducted over the last decade has suggested that these short utterances may have benefits, particularly in their ability to command the listener’s attention … These studies give merit to the notion that using filler words in moderation can be a strategic tool. The key is finding the right frequency, knowing which words to use and being cognizant of where you are placing filler words in a sentence …

As for which filler words to use, Cohen suggests like and I mean over uh and um.

“Some words are more easily identified,” says Cohen. “People know that um and uh, for instance, are ‘bad’ pervasive filler words. People are more forgiving, perhaps, when it comes to I mean or like.”

Where you place a filler word matters. There are two places in spontaneous speech where filler words commonly appear, Cohen explains: at the beginning (e.g. um, uh, so) and in the middle of a sentence (e.g. like, you know what I mean). Of the two, filler words located in the middle of a sentence—also known as discourse markers—are not as noticeable, and are not as readily perceived as a filler word, than those in the front and tail end of a thought.

To eliminate the use of filled pauses at the beginning of a thought, or to cut down on your use of these words, Cohen recommends recruiting friends or family members to clap when you use a filler word so you can get into the habit of omitting them.

His most important tip, however, is replacing filler words with a pause.

“A simple pause can have a dramatic impact on our filler word use and how other people perceive us,” says Cohen. “We are conditioned to give immediate responses. We don’t allow ourselves to think. Instead, we share the first thing that pops into our head.”

There is no denying that overusing filler words makes you less articulate—but the reality is, we’re not actors flawlessly rattling off a word-heavy Aaron Sorkin script. If POTUS can still impress with an um here or there, so can you. You just need to be, like, judicious about it.

How Not to Ruin a Good First Impression
The Secret to Stop Saying "Um" and Other Filler Words

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