‘Fillers’ Part Three – Some Personal History

I have been doing some continuing research on the matter of fillers. However, I will begin with a lesson well learned by yours truly. A couple of decades ago I was living in South Florida, and at the time I worked for a not-for-profit organization in the area of economic development. I was asked to give a speech to a small crowd of community people, and by chance my father was in the audience. The details of the event are not important, but the part about my father is.

My father has quite a remarkable history, but that is the topic of another blog that I will eventually get to. He was a career military office who served his country for more than thirty-seven years, and is a veteran of some of the terrible battles in the Pacific during World War II, not to mention the Korean Conflict and Vietnam. After WWII he decided to stay in the military, and he eventually became a Lieutenant General (that means three stars) and was the Chief of Staff, Headquarters USMC. Early on in his professional life he took a special interest in building his personal skills, something that contributed greatly to his highly successful career.

One of the early projects for my father involved joining Toastmasters. I’m not sure where the idea came from, but it was an experience that he would mention a lot when I was growing up. He never convinced me to get involved, but that was my fault, not his. My father has been a speaker all of his life, and there is no question that Toastmasters played an important role in his development as a speaker and exceptional oral communicator. I should add that my father was also an entertainer, actor and singer, in his pre-war days, and that must have helped him also. My father is now ninety-two years old and he still gives speeches!

The day I gave that speech in Miami, despite the nervousness because my father was in the audience, I finished up and thought I had done a decent job. My father confirmed my conclusion afterwards. However, he also told me that I had displayed something during my speech that caught his attention.  He was very careful not to criticize me, but he still felt, no doubt, that it was important to make his comment. “Tell me what it is” I said, not without a bit of trepidation. “You used ‘uh’ on a pretty regular basis in your speech.” That was all he said. My response was, “Really? I did? I didn’t even realize that.” Well, there is the issue, in a nutshell. I must have said “uh” pretty frequently, and I had no idea I was doing it.

I began to think about that experience and my father’s comment. I started to listen to other people’s speech (not just their formal speeches) and watched for fillers. I soon realized that many people were using “uh”. And that was not the only filler I heard. The other one that I began to notice was the now ubiquitous “you know”.

People are creatures of habit. That topic in itself is fascinating, but I don’t want to digress too much. We also develop linguistic habits, not all of which are bad perhaps, but once we have one, we don’t even realize we are engaging in it. I threw in those ‘uhs’ as a kind of crutch, I think. I was speaking formally, but I was also thinking and making sure I was saying what I wanted to say. I may also have added a few “uhs” when I was switching between looking at the audience and my notes. I had developed a bad habit and did not know it. The problem was, nobody else told me about it. All I can think about is, “Thanks for noticing, Dad”.

That was a powerful message from my father, and one I will never forget. I made a decision right then and there. I was going to clean up my bad linguistic habits. Then I thought, “Wait a minute, how many more do I have?” My father had pointed out one, but were there others? Everyone knows is it hard to break a bad habit. But it can be done, with time and effort. So, I had to start with my own possible bad habits. Of course, I am using the adjective ‘bad’ here, and some will suggest that perhaps these linguistic habits are not so bad after all. I might disagree with that, but that is a topic for another edition of my English XXI blog.

The important part of all this is the fact that I didn’t just decide that I would have to avoid ‘uh’ when giving a speech (not something I did that often anyway), but I would have to stop doing it every time I spoke. Now that was a challenge. But, I like a good challenge, just like the next person. Therefore, I took it head on.

Perhaps that event from the late 1980s was a key moment in my life as a user of the English language and an identifier of other people’s linguistic bad habits. I know that this has practically turned into an obsession for me. The readers of this series of blogs will hear me say this from time to time. If I mention it frequently it is because I feel it is fundamental to my beliefs on communication. I simply cannot listen to anyone speak, under any circumstances, without looking for their speech patterns and noticing their linguistic bad habits.

At some point I decided to refer to these things as fillers, which is a term also used by researchers on language. The most common ones are ‘uh’, ‘you know’, ‘like’, and ‘I mean’. I call them fillers because the user is probably filling in moments of silence while thinking of how to continue speaking. We all do that to some degree. Even the most eloquent speaker, unless reading from a speech or teleprompter, has the occasional moment of gathering thoughts. The problem today is that these fillers have become so common. I consider them a linguistic plague, and their use is spreading like a famous plague of the fourteenth century (the Bubonic Plague, in case you forgot).

Here is the problem, as I see it, with using fillers constantly. First, it is a distraction. A person is telling me something, and I always give people the benefit of the doubt – that are saying something that I am interested in. Of course, there are times when I am not part of the dialogue, and I might just be listening (intentionally or otherwise) because I am there and have no choice. If it is important, then I want to follow the discussion, and I want the person to explain him or herself clearly. Throwing in fillers regularly doesn’t allow me to focus on the ideas as much.

Second, and I realize this is my interpretation of the situation and is not always true, it sounds as if the person is tentative and not sure of how to describe things to the listener(s). It sounds as if the person is not sure how to proceed and must use a lot of fillers to think and decide what direction to go in with the discussion. Again, perhaps it is just me, but I will start to lose interest in the discussion because it seems the person does not know what to say or has ambivalent feelings on the topic.

Third, fillers tell me that the person does not have her/his thoughts very well organized. I can accept that people do not always have their ideas organized. I am not a “communications elitist” who expects if someone is going to speak he/she should always have all of the thoughts well organized and try hard to communicate them well. I will say, however, that I do expect well educated people to be better at this.

Fourth, I think it would be much better for a person who seems unable to express him or herself properly, and must add a filler in virtually every phrase, clause or sentence, to stop talking and get her/his thoughts organized. That person can defer to someone else for the moment, or simply allow a period of silence for everyone to do some thinking. The great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once said, “Don’t speak unless you can improve upon the silence.” We don’t have to fill every moment of a dialogue with the sounds of the human voice.

What I tell people, if I feel comfortable broaching the subject, is this: “You can pause during a discussion to collect and organize your thoughts. There is nothing wrong with that. Not every moment has to be filled in with the sound of your voice.” Besides, fillers are a nuisance and may leave the listener with the impression that the speaker is not very confident in organizing his/her thoughts. Of course, very good speakers know the importance of timing and taking pauses for dramatic effect. They don’t need fillers, and I wish everyone else would come to that conclusion as well.

The contents of this document are the property of the Brian F. Snowden, and no reproduction of any kind is permitted without the express consent of the author.

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Fillers Part Two

In my first edition dealing with ‘fillers’ I focused on the fact that the use of fillers has risen to epidemic levels in the United States. I understand, to a degree, why young people get hooked on fillers. Everyone they deal with, especially all of their peers, uses fillers. Of course, they are going to use fillers also. It might be more surprising if they didn’t use fillers.

The issue I have now is trying to understand why even educated people are using fillers more often. I have stated previously, and will no doubt do it again from time to time, that I notice everything about language when I hear people speak. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances, or what the venue, I noticed the sentence structure, the grammar, the organization of thoughts. This underscores my contention that the most important thing we do everyday of our lives is communicate. The better we can communicate our ideas, the less ambiguity we will have to deal with.

One supposes that educated people know about proper English grammar and good communications skills. I understand that people in some disciplines might not be quite as tuned in to good oral communications skills, even if they are highly educated. I don’t mean to say anything disparaging about people in technical fields, but I would understand that highly educated people in the sciences, mathematics, information science, etc., might not focus so much on their English language skills. Others, however, might be outstanding communicators.

Regardless of the background, I don’t understand why these scholars would pick up on the filler explosion. When I listen to the news, and news analysis, on National Public Radio for instance, I focus on how ideas, concepts and opinions are expressed. Most of the time, the people doing the interviews and the interviewees are people with credentials. Those doing the interviews are predominantly people with journalism backgrounds. I fully expect those people to use excellent communications skills. Is that not a prerequisite for that profession? The experts on the various topics should also be able to communicate pretty well.

I have noticed in the last several years that fillers are creeping into the conversations, even those involving highly educated people or people with deep knowledge on topics. Why is this happening? The only thing I can surmise is that it is primarily a social phenomenon. I am not an expert on linguistics or the relationship between language and culture. On a simple level, it is obvious that language is deeply embedded in culture, and that the most obvious way we communicate is through the spoken word.

If I assume that people have as one of their goals establishing relationships with others, even on very temporary and somewhat superficial bases, then I may have a better insight into the use of fillers. I will offer a couple of examples from the mass media.

Terry Gross is a widely recognized expert in doing radio interviews. I am not a regular visitor to her program Fresh Air, but when I am driving around I will often tune to my local Public Radio Station to see what is on the air. If I find a topic of interest I will listen to Fresh Air. For example, she recently interviewed Bruce Dern, the fine character actor of my generation, and it was highly enjoyable. At the end of the interview Bruce said to Terry that it had been the best interview experience he had ever had. That is quite a testimony, I would say. I will also quickly add that I think Terry is a first class interviewer.

What I have noticed is that when Terry is interviewing people and she becomes very comfortable with them, sometimes the dialogue moves toward more informality; that is predictable and fine with me. She is becoming comfortable with the other person, and vice versa. However, when that happens, Terry starts to use more fillers. It seems that she is “connecting” with the person and it is reflected in her language.

Her professional radio persona slides toward the back and her friendly persona moves more to the forefront. I am not criticizing Terry for that. Indeed, an interview with some people might be more revealing if all parties are feeling more comfortable. The point I am making is that when people are making a closer connection to others they might well pick up on and use the speech patterns, to some degree, of the other people.

The other example involves another nationally known broadcaster. Nobody doubts the professionalism and superior work ethic of Anderson Cooper. I might even call Anderson a gifted journalist and television broadcaster. Anderson displays all of the personality characteristics that I personally like in people who provide the news and analysis of the same.

In the last couple of years I have noticed that CNN, especially later in the evening when I am more apt to be watching, has segments that are more informal. This includes a program called AC360 Later in which Anderson sits at a table with his tie loosened and has three or four guest analysts with him to discuss the top stories of the day. He also brings in others via video feed to participate on the discussions.

This greater informality means that the communication changes, it seems to me. When Anderson is presenting the news, or on location providing updates on major events (such as the recent storm in the Philippines), his speech is more formal and might even be rehearsed (this is not a criticism). However, when things shift to an informal mode, the speech pattern changes. And this is when the fillers appear.

Anderson’s main fillers are “I mean” and “you know.” It is certain that as soon as things go off the formal news script, the fillers will soon appear. Again, it seems to be a sign of a person relaxing and trying to make a personal connection with others. I don’t have any issues with the switch to an informal format. What I find perplexing is what it is about fillers that makes educated people feel as if they are making a better connection with others.

I would be very interested in knowing how people such as Terry Gross and Anderson Cooper communicate when they are off camera and around people they know well, such as family members, friends and colleagues. I suspect that the conversation becomes increasingly speckled with fillers.

This raises the question of why people change their speaking habits depending on the situations they are in. Of course, I understand that when people give formal speeches or are talking in highly formal environments they are going to use more formal speech, as they think that is something this is expected of them. Those same people, if they go to a tavern to relax, they might well relax their language use. This may seem like a trivial point, but I don’t believe it is. Why should we change our communication habits? Do we not feel that it is just as important to clearly communicate out thoughts? I will pursue this question in the next edition of English XXI.