Postscript on “um”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of moderating a Facebook chat on Rutgers law professor Barbara Gotthelf’s article The Lawyer’s Guide to “Um.” She published it in Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD (for which, full disclosure, I’m a social media editor.) The Facebook chat, available here in LC&R’s ongoing Discussion Group, was a chance to explore and, in some cases, push back on her unexpected thesis:

Lawyers who speak before courts, clients, and other discerning audiences should know how fillers function to communicate information; they should understand that the actual effects of fillers on listeners may be less dire than imagined and may even be beneficial under some circumstances.

More specifically, Gotthelf shows in the paper how listeners comprehend speech better when it contains some discourse markers and “fillers” (also known more favorably as “planners”) such as “um.” Taking a text and reading it out loud perfectly, with no fillers, is less effective for speakers  than inserting some speech cues—including, yes, “um.”  Use of fillers such as “um” can signal delay while processing a thought, but can also preserve one’s “turn” to talk, attract attention, or actually help emphasize a point.

Building off of Gotthelf’s paper, the most heated part of the Facebook Discussion, if you can use “heated” to describe a respectful group of people who appear to care very much about the topic as well as one another, concerned whether to explicitly call students out on using “um.” Professor Gotthelf’s strongly held belief is NOT to point them out early in a student’s preparation cycle:

Many of my students begin the semester with annoying habits. Umms, giggling, hair twirling. It’s early nerves. That stuff melts away on its own as the students gain confidence from practicing and thinking about their arguments.

In that sense, Gotthelf said, “ums” are caused by natural unpreparedness, which can be cured naturally as well, by substantive preparation. Georgia Tech professor Brian Larson uses the opposite approach:

I DO point them out. In fact, we count each other’s (I subject myself to video as well) ums and uhs per minute in presentation videos (undergrad presentation class). We do so to draw attention to something that many audiences find annoying. I also draw attention to the fact that as a very experienced public speaker, I still average 4.5 UPM (ums per minute). Thus, there is no point freaking out about a few ums/uhs. Most of them start the semester at 12-15 ums per minute and are down below 8 by end of semester.

This debate is important because, as Gotthelf writes in the paper, there are two causes for uttering “um”: (1) task complexity and (2) task concern. Basically when a task is more complex and more vocabulary options to describe a single idea, the speaker is more likely to say “um.” And—in a painful but all-too-understandable irony—being self-conscious about speaking makes a speaker say “um” more. Which of course leads others to comment on the speaker’s use of “um” as a problem to fix, leading to even more self-consciousness.

Although there was disagreement about whether to be explicit in addressing “um,” the discussion participants seemed to agree that obsessively fixating on “um” is a mistake. As Gotthelf noted in explaining why people hate “um” so much, it’s partly because “um” is simple:

It’s easy and superficial to focus on things like “um.” It’s much harder to evaluate the content of what someone is saying.

She also noted in the paper that historically—in the classical glory days of spoken rhetoric—no one cared about “um.” Only with playback on radio and TV did “um” become a major perceived problem. And now a distaste for “um” has entered the popular view of what good speaking is:

I think people just accept the conventional wisdom about “um” and don’t dig deeper. So that conventional wisdom gets repeated and repeated and becomes cemented.

Still professors have to prepare students for the world that is, not the world we wish for. Thus some thoughtful approach to helping students avoid excessively distracting “ums” was a common theme—even if that means rigorously never mentioning “um” at all.


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