We know, we know, fillers (also called ‘crutch words’) are the conversational equivalent of biting our nails and showing up to work in a bathrobe; they make us look less competent…right?
Google Caroline Kennedy’s interview for the 2008 New York Senate election. One person counted a painful 27 “ums” and 38 uses of “you know”. This Kennedy was later, um, not nominated.
What are fillers?
A study conducted by Brigham Young University researchers define filler words “any word or sound that interpolates the main message of the speaker. Words such as like, um, uh, or ya know are considered filler words. Repetition can also be considered a type of filler”.
But do crutch words really make us look less competent? Common wisdom says ‘Yes’, but not so fast.
Actually, fillers possess a certain amount of verbal value. Therefore, some argue using filler and crutch words should be more accepted. Fillers add context and emphasis to what is be said afterwards. “I mean, corgis are the cutest!” It also makes certain situations a bit more polite. For example, it sounds a bit gentler when using a filler to turn down an invitation for after-work drinks, “Um, sorry, I can’t make it tonight” or “You have, um, something on your nose”. It also includes others in a conversation. “Our client can become a bit difficult, you know?
Using crutch words for everyday, like speaking with close friends or calling the plumber, is common. When you’re giving a professional speech, or leading a meeting, it’s time to become mindful of how you use them. Then, utilize them to your advantage.
Here’s a list of commonly used fillers (or crutch words). Which ones do you use often?
- You know?
- I mean
Why do we use fillers?
Well, actually, they’re pretty useful. For one, it gives time to the person who is explaining something complex or deep. Crutch words give them—and their listeners—time to chew on complicated matters. Professor of Applied Linguistics and English Language, Michael Handford reveals that fillers help us process difficult-to-understand concepts. A study conducted at the University of Rochester confirms fillers literally increase listener comprehension.
Another reason we incorporate filler words: to support us when we have, what researchers call “divided attention” and “nervousness”. When we have too many distractions and are overwhelmed with a variety of tasks, our brain needs time to catch up. Filler words to the rescue. A person may be involved in a nerve-racking conversation, like in an interview or pitch. The speaker becomes consumed with worrying about what the listener is thinking, therefore nervous behavior ensues. A person may use “uh” to get through the interview; or they may rush through their presentation —another nervous speech tick.
In general, fillers remain taboo, especially in a formal setting. For example, the word “just” may seem innocent enough. It turns out the filler does not inspire confidence in the work place: “I just wanted to follow up on…”, “I’m just wondering if we should…”. Technologist Ellen Leanse remarks the speaker creates an atmosphere of parent and child, of permission and docility—rather than of professional equals.
No doubt crutch words possess importance in indicating social and grammar cues. However, when in a formal setting, proceed with caution. Try to curate the type of fillers used or the extent to which you use them. It’s a popular approach in the business world to advocate for the total elimination of crutch words. Not only would that be incredibly difficult (switching on and off between personal and professional), but one would be missing out on the power fillers yield.
If these words do have their own place and time, how can you begin using fillers mindfully?
1. Become aware of your personal “Filler Preference”
What are your pet fillers? Begin listening to yourself.
Do you use “literally” often? “I literally wanted to die…”
Or is the word “like” sprinkled throughout every sentence? “It’s, like, a combative issue…”
Ask your closest friends and family for feedback; they know your verbal behaviors. Relaxed and in casual settings, you say things that may or may not bleed over in professional situations.
Now that you have an idea of which crutch words you prefer using, begin tracking how often you use. Like everything else in our digital word, there’s an app for that. Practice leading the company presentation at home. Record yourself. Then, while your re-watching yourself, open the app and begin counting how many times you use certain fillers. Sometimes they may add emphasis; other times they may detract from your intention. Weed out accordingly.
3. Become “Filler Fluent”
Instead of demonizing our favorite fillers, enjoy the humor or emotion they add to your verbal life. Once you’re aware of how often you use them, you’ll be attuned of when to use them. You know how (or if) to use them pitching your project; but you also know how to literally boss it up when you’re with friends. Understanding and being mindful of how you speak gives you confidence to wield fillers to pack your speech with a punch.