Sunday, September 27, 2009
Do You, uh, Suffer from, um...Hesitant Speech?
During everyday conversations, people often sprinkle their speech with utterances such as “uh”, “um”, “like”, “you know”, etc. Linguists and psychologists consider this speech pattern, called “disfluency”, to be normal. Disfluences are defined as “phenomena that interrupt the flow of speech and do not add propositional content to an utterance”. In other words, useless vocalizations (although some researchers propose that speech pauses and fillers aid in listener understanding of what’s coming next).
Disfluency becomes a problem, however, when you are trying to convey your knowledge, especially during technical presentations. Some people view uhs and ums as annoyances that indicate the speaker is uncertain about their topic. What made me think about this was an experience I had recently. I gave a seminar about my research late one Friday afternoon. My husband, who was in the audience, told me later that I said uh an inordinate number of times—contrary to my usual, more polished delivery. I was stunned because I had been completely unaware of this--- even though I’m well aware that this is a common problem for some speakers.
I know I say uh in conversation when speculating about something or expressing a new idea or an opinion and sometimes during presentations when my train of thought is interrupted by some distraction in the audience or when I’m speaking extemporaneously. This is apparently very common and normal. Also, as I’ve aged, I find it increasingly difficult to retrieve words from memory as fast as when younger. I know the word is in there, even what the definition is, but somehow the route to it no longer works as efficiently (or perhaps the original path is blocked and the alternative path is longer). Hence, more pauses, more uhs, and slower speech. It’s worse later in the day when I’m mentally fatigued. Being in a stressful situation, such as speaking to an audience, probably further discombobulates my brain so that word retrieval is hindered.
On the positive side, I often have people whose first language is not English come up to me after a talk to tell me that they had no trouble understanding me—contrary to other Americans who speak too rapidly.
As you might guess, there is a wealth of information on the internet about disfluency and a substantial body of literature on the topic.
For some people, disfluency arises because of lack of knowledge; hence, a brief delay while contemplating what to say. Word fillers such as uh or like are used to fill the space—possibly in an effort to keep control of the conversation. I think that is possibly the core reason I use uh in conversations. When talking with other people, especially aggressive talkers, I know that any pause is invitation for the other person to jump in. Perhaps use of verbal fillers is a defense mechanism against being interrupted. I know that when I’m interrupted, I often lose my train of thought and sometimes cannot pick up the thread later. Interestingly, males are found to use verbal fillers such as uh more often than women.
Researchers studying disfluency also find that people use more uhs and ums when answering general knowledge questions. This point fits with what I was doing during my seminar. Apparently, I only uhed when I was giving a general introduction to the topic and stopped when I talked about specific data and findings. Also, uh appears to signal a shorter upcoming pause than um. I rarely (I think) use um. Another interesting observation is that speakers use uh and um more often before unusual or unpredictable words. This would likely be helpful in alerting the listener that something unusual was coming next (as suggested by some researchers). I found some studies showing that speakers who paused more frequently in responses to questions were rated more negatively by listeners. Answers preceded by uh or um were judged less likely to be correct than silent pauses. This is interesting because I’ve always felt that my use of uh was a signal that what I was saying was my opinion or the best explanation, but that there might be other interpretations—as opposed to signaling that I was not knowledgeable. Apparently, I'm wrong. An understanding of this effect on the listener should be useful to students undergoing questioning during thesis defenses.
So it would seem prudent to know if you tend to say uh or um a lot and if so, try to break the habit. But how? Some websites offer suggestions: this one for example. Being aware of the problem and consciously pausing or taking a breath instead of saying uh is probably the best remedy. Another good suggestion is to make an audio- or videotape of yourself giving a speech. Such an approach is very useful in identifying problematic verbal patterns.