Covid changed communication. Are filler words in or out?

filler words and communications

So, can you like, even imagine how much stronger our delivery would be if we all uh, cut the filler fluff out of our speech? 

Whether you’re conscious of it or not, filler words – known as “speech disfluency” are constantly peppered throughout our conversations. Data from behavioral science research and AI analysis show that the average speaker uses five filler words per minute; that is, one every 12 seconds. Quantified Communications, a people science company, determined that the ideal frequency should be about one filler per minute. Of course, ideals rarely meet real expectations, especially when communication is a part of the equation. 

Condemned as distracting verbal crutches, professionals work hard to revise their speaking habits, especially when an important message needs to be delivered. To hold an audience’s attention, public speakers make a point to practice eliminating words such as “um,” “uh,” “well,” “you know,” “right,” and “like” from their vocabulary. But are these linguistic fillers really as harmful as we’ve been taught to believe? Are filler words all about false starts, uncertainty, and nervousness or is there more to the story?  

Filler word fallout

English speakers say well, the French say eh bien, and the Hungarians say nos.

Of over 60 languages studied, some of the most commonly used linguistic fillers are the equivalents of so, well, like, and um in English and respective languages, but ask anyone from anywhere around the globe, and you’re bound to run into similar speech filler pitfalls. 

Because linguistic fillers are phrases we use during speech that do not serve a particular purpose, they’re typically seen as a sign of distractedness or nervousness. Interpreters are trained to not use linguistic fillers because it is perceived by the listener to be a sign of uncertainty, leaving listeners to doubt the accuracy of the interpretation. Automated transcription technology is even being taught to omit fillers from transcriptions.

Despite speech disfluency disdain, many experts consider it a normal part of speech patterns and not necessarily something you need to alter. While there are specific scenarios when it might be best to limit your use of fillers, especially if they are interfering with your message, or negatively impacting your perceived knowledge on a subject, they are not entirely unnecessary.

Virtual vocabulary 

There’s no denying that the pandemic colossally shifted and altered the way we communicate with one another at work. As social creatures, we rely on both verbal and nonverbal signals to understand one another. With the sustained integration of virtual interactions, Clinical Professor of Management Communication at New York University’s Stern School of Business Diane Lennard tells MBAchic that verbal cues are more important than ever before. 

“When we interact virtually, many nonverbal signals, including body movements (kinesics), interpersonal space (proxemics), touch (haptics), and nuances of the voice (paralanguage) are missed or distorted,” says Lennard. “We have to rely more heavily on verbal signals.”

Being intentionally conversational tends to naturally increase vocal variety. Changes in emphasis, volume, and pitch hold the listeners’ attention and put listeners at ease. 

“Clear, concise, and precise communication is especially important in virtual interactions,” says Lennard. “It is now essential to be explicit in sharing our ideas, questions, and concerns.”

Professional perfectionism 

In a crusade against professional perfectionism, some are advocating for greater workplace authenticity, and feel fillers have their place even within the boardroom. According to sociolinguists, filler words serve six useful functions:

  1. Allow for thought
  2. Promote more polite speech
  3. Act as a cushion
  4. Emphasize what we will say next
  5. Communicate subtle nuances 
  6. Indicate a degree of uncertainty

Michael Barbaro of the New York Times podcast The Daily contends that verbal fillers such as “hmm,” can be a way of “punctuating interviews in ways that reminded you that two humans were having a real conversation,” and to articulate interest without applying judgment, show curiosity, and keep the conversation going.

Other experts disagree wholeheartedly and encourage professionals to consider alternatives before embracing more casual conversation cues. C-suite Public Speaking Coach Rosemary Ravinal maintains that in most business scenarios, if you hem and haw when you present, you are hedging and unconsciously chipping away at your ability to command the room. “It’s a poison pill that detracts from your authority,” Ravinal has argued. “Hedging doesn’t just make you sound insecure, it may look like you’re trying to sugarcoat, disguise or hide that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

With over two decades of experience, Professor Lennard teaches courses on team communication, business coaching, engaging audiences, and strategic communication to undergraduates, full-time and Langone MBA students, PhD students, and Executive MBA students. While a lot of the way the business world functions has changed over the course of her career, she says there are still no appropriate reasons to sprinkle sentences with fillers. 

“I do not believe that there are strategic reasons/appropriate occasions to use filler words in professional settings,” Lennard says. 

Instead, Lennard agrees with a widely adopted public speaking technique that’s popularly applied to responding to questions or transitioning from one idea to another. Filling a brief silence with a filler word might um, be like, very tempting, right? Instead, she suggests pausing to give yourself a moment to think about what you’d like to say next. 

“During in-person interactions, pausing (allowing silence instead of using filler words) gives listeners time to process what has just been said,” Lennard suggests. “In fact, speakers who pause briefly after sentences increase the impact of all their ideas.” 

Reaching out remotely

While our interactions are increasingly taking place remotely, the basic need for human connection remains unchanged. Of course, online interactions offer an entirely different medium for teams to connect and filler words can sneak into conversations and quickly confuse otherwise clear communication. To avoid awkward interruptions during remote meetings, teams can designate a facilitator who ensures that individuals can contribute ideas by monitoring the chat tool. 

“By having a facilitator and indicating that you want to contribute eliminates the need to use filler words to join in the conversation or avoid being interrupted,” suggests Lennard. 

In person or on Zoom, it becomes much more awkward to say “um” when making full, engaging eye contact with individuals in the audience or on the screen, Ravinal has said. “At your next meeting, experiment with turning your body and eye gaze toward each person in the room, giving your attention inclusively.”

In her book, Humanizing the Remote Experience through Leadership and Coaching, Lennard suggests a variety of ways to communicate effectively online. She advises professionals to be open and honest about feelings, goals, motivation, and availability, use active listening to learn about others, and choose words carefully when speaking up. Being as specific as possible will prevent ambiguity and make key messages memorable for all of the right reasons. 

“Humanizing the remote experience is critical for ensuring connection,” Lennard says. “This can be achieved on a more regular basis in organizations by keeping in mind three aspects of a human-centered approach to improving the remote experience: prioritizing people, communicating to connect, and cultivating a sense of purpose and meaning. These are crucial for addressing the human side of work.”

While those who embrace more casual forms of communication with colleagues can run the risk of appearing unpolished, there are benefits to letting go of the unrealistic goal of professional perfectionism. Giving yourself time to pause and reflect instead of rushing to fill the silence is a helpful practice to try out. Wherever you are on your professional journey, it’s always beneficial to reevaluate your communication style, become aware of personal patterns, and practice substituting weak phrases for more assertive ones. How you communicate and show up in person or online affects your business, career, and reputation. Build the confidence to embrace the sound of silence instead of feeling like you always need to fill it.

filler words and communication

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko

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About the author

Author profile

Torri is a mom, creative writer, communications specialist, and professional journalist. She has nearly a decade of experience working in print and TV newsrooms as an on-air reporter and anchor independently researching, writing, interviewing, filming, and editing her own content. Whether she is interviewing the Speaker of the House about hot button issues, or a small student group about a local grassroots campaign, her commitment and focus remain the same: to bring the story she is telling to life. As an amateur watercolorist, she is passionate about the arts, promoting women's empowerment through writing, and investing time in her family.

She lives outside of Manhattan with her husband, baby boy, and rescue dog, Jax.

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