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.

Competition, Confidence, and Success

I was thinking the other day about the fact that scientists are dependent upon competitors (colleagues who compete with us for research $$ and for space in journals) for good reviews. Our promotions and status are often tied to how many papers we publish and how much grant funding we acquire. I can think of no other job in which a competitor has such an influence over the professional success of their peers. Attorneys, doctors, and other professionals have competitors, but their on-the-job performance is not often judged by peers in a way that has a substantive influence on their career success. Yes, their work may be judged by peers as outstanding, mediocre, or poor; but those opinions don’t necessarily prevent a doctor or attorney from having many clients and making lots of money. If they work for someone else, their job performance may be judged by supervisors or the owner of a business, but never based on the opinions of co-workers.

I was reminded of this difference while watching and reading about the confirmation hearings of Judge Sotomayor. Here is an instance in which a professional’s body of work is being put on display and which must be defended before being appointed to a prestigious position. She is being grilled by senators (mostly male), many of whom are either not educated in the law or who were not as successful as Sotomayor in the field of law. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a scientist to be quizzed by a group of non-scientists who do not really understand the finer points of one’s body of work. What you might think was a major finding that shed light on a particular topic, e.g., climate change, might be attacked by a questioner who claims that climate change is a hoax. Of course, that could be an opportunity to show how you can handle difficult questions. On the other hand, it might be easier to answer questions by non-scientists, rather than scientists, who know precisely where to dig.

I’ve noticed that scientists who confidently answer questions, even if the answer is wrong, are viewed as more erudite than those who are cautious in their answers. Scientists are notorious for not giving definitive answers to difficult questions—they provide so many caveats that the questioner concludes the scientist just isn’t knowledgeable. Ironically, it’s often the more knowledgeable person who equivocates—because they know how complicated the topic is and that there is no single, absolute answer. Ignorance, on the other hand, “begets confidence more frequently than does knowledge” (Charles Darwin).

Females tend to be more hesitant in giving a confident answer and standing by it when challenged. I see this all the time at meetings, in student defenses, etc. Yes, there are exceptions, but I’m talking about in general. What is it that makes us so uncertain about our abilities? Is the new generation of women more assured and fearless? What is different about those women who are confident? Were they always so, or did it develop over time?

I don’t have the answers. But my observation is that women’s opinions tend to be questioned more than men’s. If you are constantly challenged, it wears down your confidence. It takes a particularly strong-willed person to maintain their confidence in the face of frequent questioning or criticism. If you are never challenged, then I can imagine that you would develop a mindset that you are always right and ultimately exude an erudite bearing (warranted or not). This would suggest that we are trained to be confident (or not) based how we were treated growing up, in school, in the workplace, and other experiences. Also, there are likely biochemical differences (testosterone vs. estrogen) that determine aggression, modesty, etc., which determine how we react to such treatment. Nature and nurture.

We can’t do much about nature, but we can control our environment to some extent. If you are surrounded by negative people who are always critical of you, you have the option of changing your environment and relationships. It’s not always easy, of course, but then nothing worth having is typically easy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Off the Grid

I've been doing fieldwork in a remote location for the past two weeks and have been out of internet reach. It's been blissful--not being able to compulsively check email every two minutes. At first, it's disturbing not knowing what's going on, what people are asking you about (or for), and "important" notifications. Gradually, though, you forget all about it and focus on other things--your real work, what's for dinner, whether it's going to rain today and interfere with fieldwork, etc. I've had no idea what's happening in the world. Has the US initiated another war? Any major terrorist attacks? What's Paris Hilton up to?

I'm on my way home and am now at a hotel with WiFi. I've checked my email and no major problems, thank goodness. I did have one nice surprise. I've been selected by my agency for a Diversity Award--for my work with Women in Wetlands.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Someone asked me the other day if there was a difference in gender makeup of my collaborators—more male, more female, or about equal? I said that I currently have both male and female collaborators, but had never counted them up. I had a vague idea that the proportion of female collaborators had increased over time, but was not sure. So I looked at my publication record.

Less than 8 percent of my papers have been single-authored, so my publication record is dominated by co-authored papers. Most of my co-authors have been male, which I attribute to a number of factors: the colleague pool has been (and still is) male-dominated, more male than female colleagues have had substantial funding and active research programs (and the ability to collaborate), early papers were co-authored with an established male scientist (who was project leader on several grants). 41 percent of co-authored papers had at least one female co-author (colleagues, post-docs, students), and 16 percent had all female authors. 63 percent of papers published in the last ten years had female coauthors compared to 16 percent in the previous years.

Science articles with all-female authors occur, but I think are not very common. The dearth of senior female scientists in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) limits the possibility of all-female research teams composed of people who are well-established and funded. Perhaps there are more female advisor-female student papers, but all female authors who are senior scientists are rarer.

I’m currently one of six female coauthors of a paper in press—a review focused on a mutual area of research. We all have different specialties (biogeochemistry, plant ecology, animal ecology, plant physiology, modeling, etc.), but work in a common wetland ecosystem. Our publication was not planned to be an all-female effort, but arose out of a jointly-funded project. As I was reading the page proofs, it hit me that this manuscript reflected not only the progress made in our field, but perhaps something more. I don’t necessarily think that this paper is evidence of progress by female scientists. It obviously reflects a number of factors, including our interwoven histories, common interests, ability to work together for many years, etc. It also reflects the fact that we’ve all managed to succeed to the point that we have our own labs, independent research programs, and the choice of who we work with.

I think the main point is that I no longer wonder about whether I can find colleagues who are interested in working with me. I have gradually built a network of female scientists that I can contact anytime—for help, advice, or collaboration. Although I’ve been lucky to find a few male collaborators along the way, my experience (with male scientists) has not been overall positive, ranging from disinterest to incredulity (that I would suggest a joint project). My impression, though, is that this attitude (toward me, at least) has changed, and more male colleagues are seeking me out. I can’t tell if this is due to enlightenment within the scientific community or to my reputation (that I’ve worked hard to build). Probably both.

I hope the younger generation of female scientists is finding it easier to be accepted by male colleagues. If not, find other women in your field (or in related fields) and cultivate your own network. A number of science societies (go here for an example) are promoting mentoring programs, which is a great way to network with established scientists as well as peers. Even if you prefer working alone, it helps tremendously to have someone to talk to who understands your situation.