How to Say ‘Um’ and ‘Like’ and Also Sound Smart

Photo: Rekha Garton/Getty Images

Some apps are good ideas, and some apps are very, very bad ideas, and some apps are well-intentioned but still feel like the kind of thing that will plant a seed of resentment, allow that seed to fester and grow with each new notification, and eventually push users to the point where they briefly just lose it and throw their phone on the ground in a temporary but white-hot fit of rage. Or, you know, the kind of thing that will be used once and then deleted.

This is how I feel about “um trackers”: apps that, as the name suggests, count how many time you use “um” and similar linguistic space-fillers in an attempt to help you clean up your speech. So-called filler words — which can be nonsense sounds (ah, uh, um) or single syllables (like, so, just) or multi-word phrases (I mean, you know) — are a major part of the way we talk. One study calculated that the average speaker will have a filler or other speech disruption every 4.4 seconds; other researchers have estimated that they constitute two out of every 100 words we say; either way, that’s a lot of data for a judgmental app to process.

That’s the interesting thing about filler words: They’re near universal, but they’re also nearly universally reviled. You’ve likely heard the arguments against them: Too many “ums” give the impression that you’re nervous or untrustworthy, “ah” and “uh” give off an air of incompetence, “like” makes you sound juvenile. But in Quartz yesterday, Susmita Baral offered a more nuanced view: It’s not that filler words are unequivocally bad, as so many articles (so, so, so many) seem to suggest. There’s a wrong way to use them, but there’s also a right way — one that can help you come off as more competent, more thoughtful, and better connected with whomever you’re speaking to.

“Using filler words in moderation can be a strategic tool,” she wrote. “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.”

Steven D. Cohen, a professor of communication at the University of Baltimore, explained to Baral that people are judged more harshly for peppering their sentences with non-word syllables, like “um” and “ah,” than they are for slipping in other filler words. “Some words are more easily identified,” he said. “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.’”

Even the most frowned-upon fillers, though, have their benefits. In one 1995 study titled “Does It Hurt to Say Um?”, for instance, researchers found a hierarchy of tactics for dealing with “disfluencies,” or breaks in the smooth flow of speech: People who managed to avoid pauses altogether were rated the most favorably by study volunteers, but those who used “ums” came in second place — the ones at the bottom were those who just let an unfilled silence stretch out as they collected their thoughts. A study from 2001, meanwhile, found that “uh” can actually help listeners to more effectively process what’s being said. (“Um,” on the other hand, had no effect either way — perhaps because, the authors argued, “uh is a signal of short upcoming delay and um is a signal of a long upcoming delay.”)

But as important as the word itself, Baral noted, is its placement. “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),” she wrote. “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.”

Discourse markers also have another edge: If anyone gives you flak for too many “likes,” you can point to research holding them up as a sign of thoughtfulness. As Science of Us has previously reported, people who use lots of discourse markers like “I mean” and “you know” are actually more conscientious — the linguistic quirks, in this case, are a sign of someone who’s working hard to make sure they’re understood. Or, as the study authors put it, “the use of discourse markers may be used to measure the degree to which people have thoughts to express.”

It’s a comforting line of argument for anyone with a “like” habit or an “um” tic — that fillers aren’t the character flaw they’re so often made out to be. For women especially, though, this is a small comfort: “Like” or no “like,” people will always find something to nitpick about the way you speak.