On the evening of Jan. 17, Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein appeared as a guest on Piers Morgan Live on CNN to discuss his plan to make a movie that will attack the National Rifle Association and to respond to accusations that his films portray the Catholic Church negatively. While the majority of the viewing audience likely focused on the content of Weinstein's replies, a smaller segment of the audience might have been alarmed (or annoyed or amused) by the movie producer's penchant for using the meaningless phrase “you know” in his discourse. Indeed, Weinstein used that term a whopping 84 times during the broadcast.
Linguists call interjections like “you know” and “like” and “um” and “I mean” and a multitude of others “filler” or “discourse particles” – that is, an unconscious device that serves as a pause in the middle of a sentence as the speaker gathers his or her thoughts but wants to maintain the listener’s attention. However, it would appear that such fillers – which have minimal grammatical or lexical value – have infiltrated daily conversations to such an extent that they threaten to further damage the beauty, power and effectiveness of verbal communication.
“Fillers can be overused, making the speaker sound nervous or otherwise unprepared,” wrote Heather Froehlich in the Examiner. “Someone who uses fillers comes off as more informal than intended, creating a dissonance.” Generally, younger people – whose mastery of their own languages are still evolving --- tend to use fillers more than the older set, without much recrimination. But among adults, the excessive use of fillers can sometimes indicate personality quirks.
“There is no one reason for [the use of fillers], but nervousness is certainly one reason, which goes hand in hand with lack of confidence,” said Dr. Lance Strate, professor of communication and media studies and associate chair for undergraduate studies at Fordham University in New York. “Indecision can be a different reason, not just as an expression of hesitancy but as a means of filling the ‘dead air’ while providing the individuals with a moment to think about what they are going to say next. For that reason, fillers are sometimes an indication that the person is lying, but only sometimes, and that can only be evaluated as part of a larger context, and in conjunction with other nonverbal cues.”
Dr. Stephen Croucher, currently professor of Intercultural Communication at University of Jyväskylä in Finland, who has studied such speech behaviors, estimates that the use of filler has increased over the past 30 years, with media proliferation and images of what is commonly called "Valley-talk" and ”California-speak.”
But J. Mark Fox, a communications professor at Elon University in Elon, N.C., believes that speaking skills are in serious decline in this country and elsewhere. As people develop a speech pattern over time -- and unless they make a concentrated effort to avoid them -- the filler words become normal, to the point that they do not even know they are using them. “I have asked students many times, ‘Do you know that you said ‘umm’ at the beginning of every sentence?’” Fox said. “Almost always, they admit that they did not know that. Until I point that out to them, they are not conscious of it at all.”
Of course, in a society increasingly dominated by social media and texting, brevity (i.e., terms like “lol” and “omg”) is popular and even valued as a quick and easy method of instant communications. For them, "you know" has become an accepted part of daily speech.
Even prominent public figures use fillers quite often, sometimes excessively. Former President Ronald Reagan (nicknamed The Great Communicator) was widely mocked for frequently beginning replies to questions with the ever-popular filler “Well...”
“[Reagan] was able to speak very fluently when he was reading from a teleprompter, but when he held a press conference and it came time for questions and answers, his uses of fillers skyrocketed,” said Strate. “Quite often he would respond to a question by beginning with ‘well’ uttered in a long, drawn-out manner, which again gave him time to think about what he was going to say.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy and the current U.S. ambassador to Japan, may be the all-time “filler champion.” In an interview with the New York Times in December 2008 (while she was pondering running for the Senate), Caroline Kennedy used the filler "you know" an astounding 142 times in what was essentially a 20- to 30-minute interview.
That infamous interview, with the Times' Nicholas Confessore and David M. Halbfinger, included the following incomprehensible piece of verbosity from Caroline: “So I think in many ways, you know, we want to have all kinds of different voices, you know, representing us, and I think what I bring to it is, you know, my experience as a mother, as a woman, as a lawyer, you know, I've been an education activist for the last six years here, and, you know, I've written seven books – two on the Constitution, two on American politics. So obviously, you know, we have different strengths and weaknesses." Caroline’s hopes for a Senate seat never came to fruition.
The current occupant of the White House, Barack Obama, is also enamored of fillers, though not to the same extent as Caroline Kennedy. Obama and Kennedy are both highly educated people who achieved great success – yet, their public speaking skills leave much to be desired. In this two-part interview with Chris Cuomo of CNN in August 2013, Obama used the filler “you know” (both in the beginning of a sentence and elsewhere) 29 times.
In another interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC in March 2013, Obama used “you know” no fewer than 43 times, including four times in one paragraph.
So, why has this practice of using meaningless interjections and verbal pauses -- even among well-educated and powerful people – become so widespread? And is it really even a “problem”?
Strate doesn’t think the use of fillers necessarily spells a death knell for language and communication skills. He explained that fillers are a form of “paralanguage,” the nonverbal dimension of speech, and that every spoken language has its own accompanying paralanguage – indeed, the two are inseparable. Moreover, the “use of fillers in speech is perfectly normal and quite common, and the degree to which they are used today is probably no different than the extent that people used them in the past,” he said in an interview. “It is not the frequency that changes so much as the actual fillers themselves, so that ‘you know’ and ‘like’ became much more common over the past several decades than they were in the past.”
One must also consider the context – especially for teachers, professors and lecturers, whose jobs demand they speak in public, often for long durations, leading them to “often make extensive use of fillers to provide space for thinking about what they're going to say, and sometimes that can be a habit as well, but the point is that it in no way is a sign of a poor vocabulary.” Strate posits that the expanded use of fillers reflects not a decay in education but a decline on the emphasis on public speaking. “And that is unfortunate, and ought to be rectified,” he said. “It's not just the use of fillers, but proper pronunciation, the sort of thing they sang about in ‘My Fair Lady.’”
Strate further noted that speech used to be taught in the public schools, which combined lessons in proper pronunciation and enunciation, fluency of language, avoiding fillers, and also speaking with lucidity and logic. “But today most people focus on putting together a good PowerPoint presentation, and not being able to speak well, and that is truly unfortunate,” he added.
Fox at Elon takes a dimmer view of the widespread use of fillers in daily speech, noting that it reflects a decline in Western education. “I tell my students that one of the reasons they want to learn to speak without fillers is that they [excessive filler words] give the impression to the [listener] that the speaker is not very intelligent, even though they may be extremely bright," he said. As for high-profile public figures like Obama, Kennedy and Weinstein speaking with so many fillers, Fox lamented that no one is immune from this behavior. “All of them are products of today’s educational system, which, let’s face it, is not anywhere near what it used to be, as standards and requirements have slid,” he said. “Verbal skills are just as important today; that means that those who have them will rise to the top of almost any profession.”
To be fair, there is something else to be considered here: As the private lives of public figures are increasingly out in the open, so, too, are their words increasingly uncensored -- for better or worse. In the past, print media edited out any fillers that an interviewee might have uttered, Strate noted. “The continued expansion of broadcasting and other forms of audiovisual recording and transmission make it harder to filter out the fillers, making any disfluencies of public figures much more apparent and well known,” he explained. “The electronic media are biased toward more informal formats than public speaking. They prefer more conversational formats such as interviews, and public figures by necessity need to rely on fillers in those kinds of formats. And reflecting the new electronic media environment, print media sometimes include the fillers too, no longer covering for the speaker in this sense, and perhaps as a form of criticism or mockery, but also with the effect of presenting fillers as a normal and accepted element of communication.”
In any case, for the record, ECG, a strategic communications consultancy, made the following admonition about fillers: “Fillers distract. They drown your message. They impair your delivery by diminishing your ability to align pacing, pauses and vocal variation to content. They make you seem uncertain, unprepared and unknowledgeable. They take up time and add no value.”