Career & Success

“Um, Like, So”: How Filler Words Can Be Effective in Communication

Valerie Fridland explains the meaning we all ascribe to these words and how to use them more effectively in your communication.

May 23, 2023

| by Matt Abrahams

We’re often advised not to use “um” or “uh,” or “so” and “you know,” in our communication. But linguist Valerie M. Fridland might argue otherwise. “Language is about how we encode both the linguistic message and a social message,” she says. “Crutch words… are really valuable and they have arisen to serve a need.”

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: the podcast, Fridland sits down with host and strategic communications lecturer Matt Abrahams to discuss how and when we use “you know,” “so,” and other filler words. For example, Fridland says, the way we use “um” varies greatly from how we might use “uh.” And the use of “like,” while deplored by many, actually serves a linguistic function and can provide context and background for a listener.

They and Matt also discuss the social-linguistic function of vocal fry, and whether emojis have a place in business communication.

Fridland is a professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Nevada. She’s an expert on the relationship between language and society and recently released a new book, Like Literally Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: When we think about the words we use, we tend to focus on making sure we communicate our meaning, but in fact, communicating information about our relationship, our connection, might be even more important.

I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: the podcast. Today I look forward to speaking with Valerie Fridland. Valerie is a professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno. She’s an expert on the relationship between language and society and recently released her new book entitled Like Literally Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English. Welcome, Valerie. I am super excited to dive into our conversation today.

Valerie Fridland: Well thanks, Matt. I’m really excited to talk with you.

Matt Abrahams: Great. And I love that I just get to say, dude, like I used to say growing up in Northern California near Santa Cruz, I’d like to get started with a high-level question. What is the purpose of language and how does it relate to and reveal who we are?

Valerie Fridland: The purpose of language is really twofold. It’s about communication of information. So I have a message and I want you to have the same message in your head, and that requires that I somehow get it to you. And the best way to do that is speech. But the second is social. We don’t just talk to transmit information. And so it’s not just the message in my head strictly into your head, it’s also my feelings about the message in my head, my feelings about our relationship, and my sense of how welcome this information might be to you. So all these different factors enter into communication. So language is about how we encode both the linguistic message and that social message.

Matt Abrahams: It really has two elements, the information and the connection as well. And we have to be mindful of that for sure. I have like, lots of detailed questions to ask, so let’s get into them. Can you talk about the power of the word “like” and the power of the word “so?” I see these creeping in everywhere.

Valerie Fridland: Absolutely. And I think a lot of them are thought of as crutch words or words that are not necessary, but really they’re not at all the verbal riffraff that people assign to them. They are really valuable and they both have arisen to serve a need. And everything that we use in language comes in because it has a function that maybe some people don’t value or they have a different way of meeting that need. But then the speakers that bring in those innovations clearly are finding a need for it. And “like” is a perfect example of that. Like has a bunch of different purposes and historically has been in the language a long time. So we find verb like obviously was more like lis at the time, but that comes in around the 12th century into English. And gradually over time, by the time we hit the 15th and 16th century, all of a sudden light could be a preposition and light could be a conjunction.

That doesn’t mean we always like the new forms of those speech features and even conjunction “like” is still thought of as being incorrect in grammar books. So if you look at contemporary grammar books, a lot of times they’ll tell you “do not use like as a conjunction.” It’s just sort of an example of how these forms shift over time. We often don’t like them when they’re doing it. But the newest forms of like are ones that are not directly related to the literal meaning of a sentence. And I think that’s why people have a lot of problems with them, but they have a lot of power and purpose. So you can use like as an approximator. So it tells you I’m estimating something, I’m giving imprecise information on purpose and that’s when we use it instead of about. So if I say he’s like 12 years old, I could have said he’s about 12 years old. It’s a one-to-one shift. No one is more meaningless than the other, but simply younger speakers prefer to do it with like and older speakers prefer about. So it’s really just a generational divide.

In that case we also find it as a sentence particle and that’s where we just sort of put it in for some sort of relational information that it’s giving a listener. So it’s telling a listener “what I’m about to say is connected in some way to what I just said.” And that’s usually when you say it’s sentence initially. So you might say, “I don’t think I’m gonna go to that party. Like, I’m too tired.” And that’s where I’m saying I’m gonna give you an example or a reason that’s subjective that gives you more information on what I just said. So it’s connecting the two phrases. And the final use is something we call quotative verb, which is “be like,” so that’s when you’re using it instead of the verb “to say,” to give off the sense that it’s not verbatim, the verb to say really implies this verbatim-ness to it.

It’s not really what I’m thinking while this is happening, it’s more what I was saying while this is happening, but if I want to convey to you that I was thinking something when an event in the story was happening, the verb “to say” doesn’t allow that kind of subjectivity, but say “I am like” “I was like,” that allows that extra piece of information that “this is my subjective interpretation of events,” “this is my thought process” and it doesn’t mislead someone into thinking it was a verbatim quote. So that’s its power: it does these extra things that we don’t have without that feature.

In terms of so, there are a couple different so’s and several of them are new in our speech, one is the sentence initialed so. Is that the one that you were thinking about?

Matt Abrahams: Yes, or as a transition. Yeah, it’s the same thing.

Valerie Fridland: Okay. Like “So, I wonder what you’re doing today?” I’ve heard that about that one a lot. I get a lot of emails saying I hate the “so” that comes out at the beginning of the sentence and it’s so funny that people and I there I used this so. It’s everywhere.

It’s very funny that people dislike that one because there are so many different features we use to connect sentences. So if I say something like, “therefore thus hereafter,” no one says those are crappy and don’t use them. I might not have friends to go drink at the bar because those sounded a little bit weirdly formal, but they are connectors and so is doing the same kind of work. For some reason people are particularly opposed to so, I think it’s because it’s become pretty prevalent. But the so there functions as something called backstory.

So what it does is it tells somebody, “oh, I just said something or you just said something and now I need to connect what I’m going to say to what you said. But I can’t jump directly in because there’s a whole backstory you need to know before I get to telling you what you just asked me.” And I think people don’t like it because sometimes it seems like you’re going off topic, because it’s introducing this backstory. But a lot of times it’s because the speaker feels like that backstory is important to progressing in the conversation. So it has a power and a purpose because it’s introducing supplemental material that otherwise would feel odd without some sort of indicator by a speaker of what its purpose is. And that’s how we all interpret that so.

Matt Abrahams: It is amazing to me how much work these very tiny words do for us. And I appreciate you articulating just the way these words work. I mean there are almost like Swiss army knives that can help us in so many different situations.

You brought up a point that I didn’t realize was a pet peeve until I heard you speaking. At the beginning of phrases before people have even said anything they’ll say, “I mean” and “you know” and they haven’t said anything, so I don’t know what’s up with that.

Valerie Fridland: A lot of times people say them when you’re in conversation and so I mean as usually an indicator that you are going to refine or provide some sort of additional information on something or clarify something that was previously said. And it’s often something that was either said several turns ago that you said, or it’s something that someone asks about or someone makes a comment about that you want to refine their understanding in terms of interpreting what you were saying.

So if someone will say, “I mean I didn’t really think that, but I guess now that you say it, it’s true.” Where it’s sort of saying, “okay, yes, I’m stepping back to further explicate how what I’m saying relates to what you were saying.” You know is interesting because it invites audience inference. That is the idea of you know. So when I say, “well I was doing this, you know, and then this happened.” What it’s doing is it’s involving the listener in a sort of collective storytelling or collective conversation building.

And that is why I say, you know, it’s because I wanna involve the listener in some way in this collaborative process. But because it’s inviting listener inference, sometimes listeners don’t interpret it positively because they feel like you’re asking them to do work. It’s asking the listener to refine their thinking or to do extra work in thinking when it’s not their turn. And I think part of the reason that people dislike you know is because they don’t wanna feel involved at that level in someone else’s turn.

So it’s a mismatch I think between my attempts to involve you as a listener in our conversation collaboratively and your attempt to be sort of just a static listener and not have to get involved all the time. It’s definitely age driven. I find that discourse markers are, tend to be used more by young women and some studies have supported that. And older men in particular find them disfavorably, which can then hurt women in these professional contexts because that’s underlyingly an evaluation that no one might be aware they’re making, but they may feel like a woman’s being less certain, or less sure, or less authoritative because she’s inviting inferences from the audience. And we found though, when we look at studies of who uses these, it tends to be people that on psychological tests prove to be more conscientious. So it seems to be, women because historically they’ve been forced to be more the organizers, the conscientious ones, the ones that manage conversation, and that makes them more useful to them.

Matt Abrahams: You’ve really opened up my mind to these phrases that had been bothersome to me. And it strikes me that you know and I mean are really helping one of the two functions of language, which is the social emotional aspect of it. And that research you shared is fascinating and it certainly highlights the point that the words we use and the way we use those words impact how people see us and what they think about us. And part of the reason why I think what you study is so important for everybody to really take time to understand is: judgments are being made about how you are using language. It’s not just, are you communicating your information well? One of the purposes of language, but the impact of that in terms of the socio-emotional relationship is really playing out.

In my world, as somebody who focuses on spoken communication, filler words, loom large, the uhs and the ums, they can be very distracting, especially when repeated too often. Many people are given the advice to get rid of these. I’m wondering what is the purpose of them because they’re ubiquitous and do they help us in some way? And to your point you just made, are there differences in terms of gender, age, expertise, when it comes to filler words?

Valerie Fridland: Yes. That’s a big question, so I’m gonna unpack it in a bunch of different little levels. Let’s first tackle the idea of filled pauses, which is what linguists refer to as, um and uh, which are slightly different than filler words more generally from a cognitive standpoint and also from a function standpoint. So things like you know and like don’t actually pattern in the same way as uh and um. So when things don’t pattern in the same way, we kind of separate them.

So “fill pauses” are things that seem to signal cognitive processing load. So they occur mainly before we’re doing really hard cognitive retrieval. So that means they’re going to be more likely before difficult words, more abstract words, less common or familiar words, as well as more hierarchical intensive syntactic structures. What I mean by that is, for example, at the very beginning of a sentence, they’re going to occur more often as we find in research because my brain has to build the entire structure of the sentence before I get started.

And so the um the uh are signaling, okay, I’m really working hard here. So I think it’s interesting we hate them so much when actually they’re signaling someone’s doing really hard work in that conversation. People that choose very familiar words don’t um and uh as often because they’re not doing such cognitive retrieval. Now that doesn’t mean they’re doing dumb things: it simply means when I do use them, I’m really working hard at coming up with things that are less familiar for me. The other thing is they have a communicative part.

And so when I um or uh, not only does it signal I’m doing some hefty cognitive retrieval, but it also signals to a listener that I need a break, I need a pause, and I’m not done with my turn yet. Because we find that when people are either giving lectures or telling stories or talking to computers, all these contexts where we’re not expecting to be interrupted, they um and uh less often, which tells us there’s something intentional and communicative about using those and since we do it, when we’re in conversation more often, what that signals is, “I’m telling you back off buddy, this is my turn and I just need a sec.”

And the really fascinating thing is when we study what happens after the um or the uh we find that uh is proceeding shorter delays than um, which suggests that I’m actually intentional in telling you as a listener “this is going to be just a second and I’m coming right back” or um means “I’m doing more cognitive work and it’s gonna take me a little bit longer.”

So we really seem to signal very specific information by our choice of whether we, uh or um, and because they signal cognitive processing load, which generally occurs with newer harder information. Listeners seem to become more attentive when we use an uh or an um before words. And when we set them up in eye tracking experiments or with ERP-type brain scan measurements, what we find is it increases their speed at word recognition.

And this one is the one that makes me really impressed. It also seems to help them remember those words that were preceded by, uh, or, um, better than when they weren’t proceeded by those in the tests that we give them later on. So the funny thing to me is how much we despise um and uh, how much we tell people to get rid of them, when really there’s nothing from a linguistic standpoint that’s not beneficial.

However, from a social standpoint, clearly they’re not well loved and that means people might perceive you badly when you use them. But, I think what we can do in terms of training ourselves if we’re worried about our ums and uhs, is use the information that linguistics can give us to look at how we can be more effective speakers from a social standpoint, by taking what we know linguistically and applying it to our own practice. So to do that, we need to make things more familiar, make things less difficult and make things less abstract. Because we know that the more we do that, the better we will be in terms of lowering our rate of um and uh. So the more I practice, and the more I’m prepared and familiar with my material, the less likely I am in those contexts to use um and uh because the whole point is I won’t need to be doing as much cognitive activation. And so there are ways that we can use this knowledge to help us with our social knowledge as well.

Matt Abrahams: There are so many things that um and uh seem to do to really help us. I learned so much from you in that answer. The fact that it signals cognitive processing, which means we’re doing good work on behalf of our audience, and yet the fact that as audiences we might see the um and uh in a very different light, the person’s nervous, isn’t prepared, et cetera is fascinating.

I’d love for you to talk to me about how we end our sentences in terms of vocal quality. Some of us go up at the end of our sentences to make them sound like questions even though they’re not. And others of us can get really quiet, or even what’s known as this vocal fry where you get really gravelly at the end of sentences. Does this serve a purpose at all and is it troublesome in terms of language and language use?

Valerie Fridland: I think it’s only troublesome to those that really dislike it and to the people that are affected by those who dislike it. Uptalk and vocal fry are both things that have been strongly associated with women’s voices in contemporary American culture. And this can be really problematic for women because women tend to be innovators, they generally lead in language change, and women’s voices also historically are not welcomed and many public forums. So when you take voices that are inherently biased against anyway, and then you make them innovators and you do noticeable things like invent new forms and fashions and speech, it doesn’t usually go well for you. And that seems to be what’s happening with both uptalk and vocal fry. Both of those are ways to signal social meaning and usually they signal something about either, you want to make sure people know you’re going to continue your turn. So uptalk in the way that you’re talking about where it’s not actually a rising intonation question, but it’s rising intonation on a statement. That has been used primarily to signal continuation of a speech stream. And so women might be using this more often because often they are talked over.

So if we look at research particularly in public domains like professional or educational settings, even though there’s a strong belief women talk more in those settings they generally do not, and in fact often don’t speak up because they’re not treated very well when they do, they don’t feel like their voices are welcome. And so it has made them maybe be a little more clear that they’re not done with their speaking term because in those contexts we do find women that tend to get interrupted more often.

There was a really interesting study of Supreme Court justices where they found in oral arguments, female Supreme Court justices get interrupted at a much higher rate than male Supreme Court justices both by men and women. It wasn’t just men doing it, it was both groups just seemed to interrupt women more. So one solution is to rise your intonation pattern to make sure people are not misreading your turn is being done. So that’s a really effective strategy. It’s not troublesome in the way that it’s actually a very ingenious way to try to get the turn. But it’s troublesome in that people tend to really strongly associate this upward intonation pattern with question formation. And because even though they know you’re not doing a question, because they’re very strongly tied to these norms of what they think speech should be used for in intonation patterns being one way or not another, they often call attention to it.

The other one you talked about was vocal fry, which is sort of the opposite pattern where you drop in pitch that seems to signal I’m getting to the end of my sentence. So that’s a totally different cue. So instead of signaling continuation, it’s signaling, I’m done with my thought. And it does also seem to be something prevalent in women’s speech in the United States.

But interestingly, if you look at the studies on vocal fry, historically it tends to be more of a male feature and it was considered a hyper-masculine feature when studied in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. And in fact, even in smartphone data that was culled and studied in 2021 to look at the distribution of vocal fry in British speech, again, it was strongly a male tendency, not a female tendency. But what it has really prompted its use here is again the need for women to adjust their voice to be taken seriously. And we find a correlation with vocal fry and ratings of professionalism, urbanity, and sort of intimacy and relaxed tone. And that seems to be what’s driving young women to use it these days in American speech to get that sort of professional boost and that competence and leadership boost that is associated with low pitch and men’s voices.

Matt Abrahams: Again, both of these are signaling social cues to help people understand how to relate. You’ve certainly underscored the power and status transfer of information that comes through the language we use, the words we use, but also the way in which we say it.

I’d like to switch gears here and get to two questions that are rather personal in nature. Several years ago in my Strategic Communication class at the business school, I asked if emojis were appropriate in business communication. And, again, several years ago, I’d say the results were about 50-50 from my students. And just recently knowing I was going to be speaking with you, I asked exactly the same question and the result was dramatically different. Virtually everybody said that emojis are appropriate in business communication.

As a linguist, what do you think of emojis? Are they appropriate in our communication? Are they serving a purpose and function that words aren’t doing for us?

Valerie Fridland: I think they absolutely are. There have been some studies in the early two thousands on texting speech or computer-mediated communication, and they looked at things like emojis and they found that they were actually quite rare at that time, they were only about 4% of our communications in that forum. But I think you’re right that in the last 15 years or so, it has grown exponentially how much we use those kinds of meta messaging in our texts and our emails. And I think it’s because there has been such an explosion, especially with the pandemic that even before that, with our forms of communication in the workplace, we have gone from communicating over the phone and face-to-face to communicating primarily over email and texts. I have two teenagers and I don’t think they even know how to use a phone. I’m not kidding.

Matt Abrahams: My younger son yelled at me for calling him on the phone. I’m like, that’s what it’s for. He’s like, “no, no, no, no. This is a texting device.”

Valerie Fridland: Exactly. So it has shifted so dramatically how much we use these different kinds of techniques of getting in touch. But what the problem is when you’re not face-to-face is the communication of all these social messages that we give when we talk on the phone or we talk face-to-face, are not available to us and things can be misconstrued. So if you say, “what are you doing?” Well, when we’re in person, I might say, “what are you doing?!” Well, that’s clear for my intonation that you’re doing something wrong. But if I say, “Hey, what cha doin’?” That’s clear from my tone of voice that I’m just like, “what’s going on? Let’s hang out.” So very, very different things for the exact same words, but when you’re on a text or an email, that kind of social messaging isn’t available to you. But what is, are these other new forms of transmitting these emotional and social messages. And emojis are huge in that. And they’re more effective in many ways than some of the things like exclamation points in all caps because there’s so many different forms of them that you can convey all sorts of emotions.

Irony, laughter, love, all of those things are available and accessible. Now, I don’t think I would suggest sending your boss a heart emoji is maybe the right choice, but certainly I think if you say something and you want it to be taken tongue in cheek or is sort of, I don’t wanna be confrontational here. I’m trying to just convey information like, “I need that report by five.” I’m not yelling at you, I’m just requesting. And there’s no way to indicate that unless you use additional information. So I might yell at you by writing all caps, but if I’m just conveying that “I need that report by five and hey, we’re cool,” a smiley face can do a lot of that kind of work for us. So I absolutely think it’s fine, but I also think this is a case where you need to know your audience. If you know that you have a, you know, curmudgeon as a boss that probably has never used an emoji in his life, that wouldn’t be the best choice to use one with him. You just need to be very careful in your wording not to come across as too direct or as somewhat rude, which I think email often can be a forum where that can happen easily.

Matt Abrahams: I predict that if you and I were to have this conversation five, 10 years from now, that sending your boss a heart emoji might be acceptable. It is changing so quickly and so fast that evolution is going to happen. I’m convinced.

I do agree that the subtle cues that you can put in through emojis are really helpful and can help reduce friction and misunderstanding. Now this question is incredibly personal. As a linguist, I’d love to get your take on the very ungrammatical name of this podcast, Think Fast, Talk Smart. Do we get a failing grade from a linguist?

Valerie Fridland: Oh no, you get an A plus. Well first of all, it’s really not un grammatical. So if we were outside in Tahoe in 20 feet of snow and I threw a snowball at you and I said, “think fast!” it would be completely appropriate. So it’s not really ungrammatical if you situationally place it, but what I love is how you’re using one of the first lessons of marketing and branding, which is to make yourself memorable. And if we are all saying the same thing, then saying something different makes us stand out.

It’s a very effective way to make a name or a title be different, stand out, have more marketing and branding value, because it’s more memorable when it’s not just the same old, same old. And by doing something slightly atypical, you are making people notice it more. So I love the name.

Matt Abrahams: Well, thank you for that. So Valerie, before we end, I would love to ask you the same three questions that I ask everybody and I’m going to be very curious about the words you choose because I know words are so important to you. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five-to-seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Valerie Fridland: Sometimes listening is more important than speaking.

Matt Abrahams: Okay.

Valerie Fridland: That was some great advice I got when I first became an academic, I joined my department as a tenure track professor. As anybody who’s in a university knows, tenure is one of those things where everybody who votes on you is your colleague. You have to be very diplomatic and very careful. I asked a mentor I had what her advice was for how I should approach conversations with my colleagues, participation in departmental meetings. And that was some really good advice. She said listening is sometimes more important than speaking because a lot of people want to hear themselves talk, but very few people want to answer the questions they’re asked. And if you take the time to listen to what people need from you, you’ll be a much more effective speaker and a much more effective teacher. And I think that really has paid off over the years in my classes and in my interactions with people.

Matt Abrahams: Well, your advice there and the advice you were given is really important. Listening is, I think, the most important part of communication. And clearly somebody who does what you do, you’ve demonstrated throughout our conversation that you listen very astutely, not just for the meaning, but for the use of words and how it plays out. Question number two: who is the communicator that you admire and why?

Valerie Fridland: Now, this is a tough one because I’m torn between ones that I, you know, historically have had a lot of respect for and ones that I think are great communicators in the modern era in ways that people would not expect. So am I allowed two?

Matt Abrahams: I’ll give you two. I’m very curious. Now you’ve teased me.

Valerie Fridland: Okay. So I think if I was just going to say who’s a great orator and who I feel has a wonderful cadence and an emotional resonance in the way he talks, that has been appealing to many, many people, I’d say Martin Luther King, of course you cannot listen to I Have a Dream without feeling like you have a dream and there is this dream. It’s so, it captures you, it’s the cadence. It’s such a clear message. I don’t think many people would argue that he was a great communicator, but I think young women in the modern era in terms of their ability to be great communicators and really resonate with an audience, which may not be the audience people want them to resonate with, but the audience that they intend to resonate with and who they reach the most. I would say Taylor Swift is actually a great communicator. I think a lot of people don’t give her credit for that. She has an incredible influence on young people and young women in particular. And she’s also very eloquent, but she’s also using the norms and the functions and the features of today’s young women. So she really resonates and reverberates with that group. And I think that’s really the mark of an effective speaker.

Matt Abrahams: I think you picked two very, very effective speakers. Very, very different audiences. Very, very different times, but both leveraging many of the things you’ve talked about, the way in which words are constructed and used to get attention and and get messages across. Alright, final question. Question number three: what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Valerie Fridland: To listen well. Second, to respond kindly and compassionately. And third, to relax. Everything you’re worried about in the speech of people that may not talk like you will work itself out and it’ll only become our new norms or they’ll be on the wayside and it’s not going to cause the decay of English. So I think relax would be my third word in that case.

Matt Abrahams: And I think that is really important advice. You know, I do a lot of work and I’m sure you do as well with non-native speakers, in our case, to English. And there’s a lot of stress to say it right, you know, whatever that right is. And to relax and understand that there is some give in language and that it will change over time is really important.

Well, Valerie, thank you so much. I have to admit that speaking to a linguist, I was very worried about my word choice. And you made it very comfortable and natural to speak with you. And we learned a lot about not just the purpose of language in terms of transmission of meaning, but of transmitting connection and social relationships and how all of these things came to be. Thank you so much.

Valerie Fridland: Absolutely. Thank you for having me on.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music was provided by Floyd Wonder. For more information and episodes, find us on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you. And please make sure to subscribe and follow us on LinkedIn.

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