A few lucky people have the ability to speak fluently without hesitation. For the rest of us, however, words like “um,” “er,” and “I mean,” are a common part of our language.
Being slightly less eloquent doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t as smart, though. Linguists have said those who use more of these so called “filler words” are probably being more conscious of who they are talking to and what they are saying.
Michael Handford, a professor of applied linguistics and English language at Cardiff University, told The Independent people often use these words to be polite.
“If you invite somebody to a party and they say no without any of those markers they will appear rude probably,” he said. “If you say ‘um, well, you know, sorry’ it makes it much more polite. They play a really important politeness function.”
Another use for filler words is when we are speaking about something deep or complicated, and we’re aware the person listening might need more time to catch up.
“As speakers we are often aware [that] if we speak too complexly the listener might not understand,” Handford told The Independent. “We use these items, pretty unconsciously, to help the person process what we are saying.”
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This goes for the person talking, too. Sometimes you might be racking your brain for the right words, because you’re having a mind-blank or you’ve been asked a particularly difficult or technical question. Equally, you might just be making noises to signal you have something to say, and your brain just hasn’t caught up yet.
Filler words could indicate someone is lying.
In a blog post on Psychology Today, Dr. John R. Schafer, professor at Western Illinois University and a retired FBI Special Agent, said these little words can also signal deception. He said tag words such as “you know,” “I mean,” and “right” are used to seek confirmation in the listener, or convince them.
“Truthful people convey information and seek confirmation from listeners,” he wrote. “Liars try to convince others that what is being said is true. The word ‘like’ indicates that what is being said is different than what the speaker actually means.”
Similarly, “um” and “uh” delay speech, giving someone time to evaluate their answers, to ensure what they are saying will be believed.
Of course this doesn’t mean that everyone who hesitates is a liar. Schafer points out that little words can also be out of habit, and are used pretty much automatically during our conversations. So it really depends on the situation.
The use of filler words varies with age, gender, and personality.
In 2014, Dr. Charlyn M. Laserna and her colleagues analysed the recordings of everyday speech collected from hundreds of participants from studies between 2003 and 2013. They wanted to work out whether there was any difference in the use of filler words depending on age, gender, or personality. Their findings were published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology.
The results showed younger people used little words more frequently, and women used them more than men. However, this was only present in teenagers and students, and the gender difference disappeared after age 23. The researchers also concluded that more conscientious people used filler words more often.
“Conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings,” the researchers wrote. “[This shows a] desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients.”
I mean, it’s not an exact science, right? But there are, like, several reasons people could be hesitating. So it’s a case of working out whether you think they are doing it on purpose to deceive you, or whether it’s just a part of their personality. It could just be a sign they’re a good listener, you know?