Thursday, April 13, 2017

What linguists think about "um:" Guess who gets punished for using it?

The New York Times recently published So, Um, How Do You, Like, Stop Using Filler Words? It was a disappointing rehash of the tired suggestion that ums and other fillers are to be avoided at all costs. No linguists were quoted.  And this is how I reacted:
Michael Erard's book, Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, reshaped my perception of the dreaded filler word. Ums, he notes, are 10 percent of everyone's speech, the world around. And until we started recording sound, no one took much notice of them in literature. But after recorded sound, the reaction to ums was stark. Toastmasters, which came into being around the same time, made a point of having ums counted whenever club members speak, a shaming way to eradicate them. Transcription services agreed to omit ums from transcripts; even today, you have to pay to re-insert them. And millions of speakers labor under the misimpression that ums are evil, as a result.

So I was delighted when Michael sent along this response, including the perspective of linguists, to the Times article. Let's stop demonizing filler words made its objections to the Times article clear early:
1. It doesn’t address the many valuable functions these words play.
2. It perpetuates a sneaky type of bias against women and young people.
It's worth reading the article if only for the discussion of the many ways we use ums and filler words--"discourse markers," in the linguist's words. You'll start thinking of them as a more versatile tool, and one you may choose to use. But of course, I was drawn to the bias against women who make use of um. From the article:
The NYT article is purportedly addressed to everyone, but it’s largely women and young people who are judged negatively for talking this way. 
The article does make this point, or at least a related one. Mele writes: “Speakers who are well known in their professions but overuse verbal pauses are still perceived as credible because they have built a reputation. Audience members will chalk up those habits to just the way they talk, Ms. Marshall said. … But newcomers who use as many interjections as seasoned professionals will be seen as less credible because they do not have the years of experience.” 
Yet he stops short of the obvious conclusion: there’s nothing wrong with using these words. The only people who are critiqued for using them are already low-status, and this critique helps maintain the low status of certain people and groups.
Separately, I found Jessica Bennett's What A Speech Coach Told Me About “Speaking Like A Woman” (And Why It’s BS), a spot-on take about "filler words" from a woman speaker's point of view. She says:
When it comes to women and speech, though, there’s an important caveat—that what’s been deemed the ideal doesn’t necessarily match the way women actually, well, talk. And so we are told that we sound unconfident when we raise our pitch. That we should remove our “likes” and “justs” (and there are apps to help us do it), defry our chords, and that we should practice, and learn to find our “best speaking voices.” 
But what if we’ve already found them?
That's the viewpoint I take here on The Eloquent Woman, and in my own coaching of speakers. There's more right with you than wrong with you, most of the time, and as Mary Beard reminds us, the real problem is that we haven't learned to listen to women's voices as conveying power...so people keep trying to make women sound like men. Sigh.

Let's say it again: There's nothing wrong with using these words. Help me spread that around, willya? My special thanks to Michael Erard for pointing me to this very good article, which ends with excellent resources for those who wish to dive deeper into filler words and how they can be a versatile tool in your speaking.

(Altered Creative Commons licensed photo by Steve Rotman)

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