Um, filler words may not always be bad, and may do some good

In some cases, they may aid comprehension

So-called filler words such as "um" or "like" have a bad reputation—but using filler words is not only normal, it may have some benefits, Susmita Baral reports for Quartz.

Steven Cohen, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Baltimore, told Quartz that filler words "appear in every language and every culture." It's easy to understand why. When we need a moment to think or we get a bit nervous, a quick interjection of an "um" can do wonders.

But overusing filler words can send a signal to some that a speaker is immature, inarticulate, or nervous. The words "impede our ability to speak with power" and "become interrupters that detract from our message," Cohen explained.

Making the best use of—um—filler words

But at the same time, filler words are a natural part of language. James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, told Quartz. "Most of us have gone through a period [of overusing filler words], and we always have," he said.

There is even some evidence that a judicious use of filler words can increase listener comprehension, among other benefits. For instance, a 2014 study by Pennebaker and colleagues published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology found a correlation between using filler words and a perception of conscientiousness. And another study from University of Illinois researchers found they may help with listener recalls.

But experts told Quartz that it's important to use them sparingly.

Scott Fraundorf, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Pittsburgh, said that, on average, speakers use two filler words per every 100 words spoken. If you start using them at a higher rate, he noted, comprehension may suffer.

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Cohen also advised that not all filler words are created equal. For instance, filler words used mid-sentence are less noticeable than those used at the beginning of a sentence. He suggested pausing before you speak to cut down on the use of the latter. "A simple pause can have a dramatic impact on our filler word use and how other people perceive us," he said (Baral, Quartz, 7/25).


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