In the Beginning Was the Word, and the Word Was “Um”

Many hear verbal stumbles as a lack of eloquence—or worse, intelligence. However, there’s a new love and respect for our little hesitations.

I have one word for you glib, fluent people, you who sound smooth, scripted, and rehearsed, who execute each sentence with crisp precision, because your success may be at stake:


Here and there you can catch a new attitude about this and other hesitations to the ideal, uninterrupted flow of speaking. Barack Obama’s main political consultant, David Axelrod, likes to record video of people on the street for political ads; they inevitably say “uh” or “um,” which he likes, he says, because it’s more authentic.

In the 2005 business language jeremiad, Why Business People Speak Like Idiots, the authors advocate that speakers be more relaxed. “It’s not a bad thing to open the kimono in celebration of those ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ for all the world to see,” they write. (For those of you who are not idiots, “open the kimono” is corporate jargon for “letting down your guard” or “showing one’s hand.”)

When Condoleezza Rice first became Secretary of State, she uttered “uh” and “um” in public statements with surprising frequency, given her experience and position. At first glance (or listen) she was warming up to the new role, but the style has persisted. Whether intended or not, the effect seems to be that Rice isn’t reciting talking points, she’s opening the kimono of U.S. foreign policy.

Americans began to prefer um-less speech in the early 20th century, as an increasingly complex and urbanizing society boosted the value of planning and efficiency. Saying “um” was a sign that the bureaucracy in your head, of your self, was breaking down. Burgeoning technologies drew attention to verbal embarrassment, as the phonograph and the radio captured evidence of the fleeting inefficiencies of everyday speaking.

Teachers of public speaking contributed to this newly valued um-lessness: They boiled eloquence down to a set of traits—among them, not to say “uh” and “um.” By the 1920s, after decades of silence on the matter, books of etiquette urged young men and women to mind their ums, too. In 1928, author Helen Hathaway warned in Manners: American Etiquette that “puncturing our sentences with ah’s and er’s, mincing our words, [and] employing affected tones and gestures, are tricks annoying even to our friends and positively repellant to strangers.” Even psychotherapists frowned on so-called filled pauses. In 1959, psychiatrist Sandor Feldman wrote about patients whose “moaning-like ‘er…er…er…’ is annoying,” in Mannerisms of Speech and Gesture in Everyday Life. The only rule no one seems to have written was that you shouldn’t say “um” when talking to yourself.

Uttering “uh” and “um” is the sign of thought, a symptom of an additional mental load, rather than the absence of thinking. While the fashions of public speaking change, the psychological facts about language remain the same. For instance, we conventionally believe that people who say “um” a lot when they speak are unsure, over-careful, or nervous. However, in the 1950s George Mahl, a Yale psychologist, overturned that theory by measuring the number of times his subjects said “uh” or “um” against their levels of stomach acid—and found no correlation. What he did find was that for more a reliable marker of anxiety, we should notice how frequently a speaker restarts a sentence, repeats a word, or utters a fragment of a word.

One of these “speech disturbances” (as Mahl called them) occurs once in every 4.4 seconds of speaking, on average. About six percent of the words that normal speakers say aren’t pronounced without some sort of interruption, which has probably been true for the 100,000 years that humans have had language. Why? Because everyone has to plan what to say next. Some of us opt for “uh” and “um” at those junctures. It’s as if we can either think or speak—but not both at once. Nearly all of the psychological and cognitive research that has since been done in this area, which was inspired by George Mahl, says that uttering “uh” and “um” is the sign of thought, a symptom of an additional mental load, rather than the absence of thinking. But while it’s rare for someone to be able to have novel ideas and speak perfectly fluently, many of us continue to equate fluency of speech with fluency of thought.

So why the new lenience toward “uh” and “um?” Perhaps it represents a rhetorical resource that hasn’t been exhausted yet. Someone less cynical might suggest that American audiences simply want more variety in their broadcasted voices. It could also be related to the architectural impulse that exposes conduit and pipe in buildings or opens restaurant kitchens—a desire to see the backstages of life where the action really happens—like people on the street talking about Barack Obama. Or it could be an assertion of uniquely human qualities to counteract technological values that have pushed too far. A verbal dissent, so to speak.

But beware celebrating the open kimono. Not all people who say “um” are spontaneous and authentic, just as not all those who speak smoothly and fluently are more intelligent or competent. The phone message that starts, “Uh, yeah, hi, this is Bob,” may still be a telemarketer. “This business of keepin’ it real—it can be carried too far, and it can come across as arrogant,” writes Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker about the television version of This American Life: “Real is earned.”

So let me offer another way out of the style wars that will stand the test of time. A study by Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California at San Diego, showed that about half the listeners to a speech naturally pay attention to the content. The other half listen to the style. But when the content gets boring, obvious, or offensive, the content listeners switch to listening for style. The solution for getting fewer people to notice your speaking style—and those pesky “ums”—is pretty clear:

Be more interesting.

TMN Contributing Writer Michael Erard lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son. His book about the science of polyglots, Babel No More, is now out in stores. More by Michael Erard