Filler words—like, you know, I mean, uh, um—are an inescapable part of our everyday lives. President Barack Obama, a typically eloquent speaker, uses them; they’re littered throughout Kim Kardashian’s speech; and according to experts, you probably use them every five seconds when you’re speaking spontaneously.
This is not a new phenomenon (the earliest use has been dated back to 1469), and it’s not exclusive to the English language. Filler words “appear in every language and every culture,” says Steven D. Cohen, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Baltimore. The English um, for example, has a Korean equivalent, eum and a French counterpart, euh. According to Cohen, people around the globe are constantly using filler words, making it a “pervasive habit.”
Despite this, filler words typically have a bad rep. Overusing the word like, for example, stereotypically gives off an airhead vibe, while saying uh and um can make you seem hesitant, insecure or unconfident. A conversation packed with these unnecessary interjections can be distracting and imply scattered thought. Many people feel they clutter speech, can undermine your credibility, and are considered unbecoming in professional settings. Cohen, who believes there is no place for disfluency in our everyday language, finds filler words “impede our ability to speak with power” and “become interrupters that detract from our message.”
But there are a not-insignificant number of studies to suggest we’ve got it all wrong. Not only might filler words be inevitable, it’s possible they’re actually a useful part of our linguistic evolution. In fact, they might even be beneficial, at least according to some of the science.
So, like, really?
There are two variables that are indicative of filler frequency and word choice: age and gender. That’s according to research by James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. For instance, while men and women both use filler phrases at an equally high rate, the men prefer uh while women opt for um. Young people typically use filler words more, since they are “socially insecure,” he says. Generally, most people grow out of it over time.
“This is a very normal way that people speak,” says Pennebaker. “Most of us have gone through a period [of overusing filler words] and we always have.”
Still, listeners tend to have a negative opinion of speakers who overuse these words, particularly the word um, a small 1995 study found.
But research conducted over the last decade has suggested that these short utterances may have benefits, particularly in their ability to command the listener’s attention. A 2014 study from Pennebaker and his team found a correlation between filler words and conscientiousness, in the way the words can be seen as social and personality markers. In 2011, researchers from the University of Illinois found they help with listener recall, and a 2003 study by University of Rochester researchers found these words weren’t just superfluous, but actually helped with listener comprehension.
These studies give merit to the notion that using filler words in moderation can be a strategic tool. The key is finding the right frequency, knowing which words to use and being cognizant of where you are placing filler words in a sentence.
And, um, how?
People use about two filler words per 100 on average, and that can help a person understand a story better, says Scott Fraundorf, co-author of the listener recall study and an assistant professor in Psychology at University of Pittsburgh. The flipside of course is that using too many filler words can make comprehension harder. “A balanced way to use filler words might be to use a few, but not too many,” Fraundorf says.
As for which filler words to use, Cohen suggests like and I mean over uh and um.
“Some words are more easily identified,” says Cohen. “People know that um and uh, for instance, are ‘bad’ pervasive filler words. People are more forgiving, perhaps, when it comes to I mean or like.”
Where you place a filler word matters. There are two places in spontaneous speech where filler words commonly appear, Cohen explains: at the beginning (e.g. um, uh, so) and in the middle of a sentence (e.g. like, you know what I mean). Of the two, filler words located in the middle of a sentence—also known as discourse markers—are not as noticeable, and are not as readily perceived as a filler word, than those in the front and tail end of a thought.
To eliminate the use of filled pauses at the beginning of a thought, or to cut down on your use of these words, Cohen recommends recruiting friends or family members to clap when you use a filler word so you can get into the habit of omitting them.
His most important tip, however, is replacing filler words with a pause.
“A simple pause can have a dramatic impact on our filler word use and how other people perceive us,” says Cohen. “We are conditioned to give immediate responses. We don’t allow ourselves to think. Instead, we share the first thing that pops into our head.”
There is no denying that overusing filler words makes you less articulate—but the reality is, we’re not actors flawlessly rattling off a word-heavy Aaron Sorkin script. If POTUS can still impress with an um here or there, so can you. You just need to be, like, judicious about it.