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.