Years ago, when I quit my job to travel around South America, I was excited to get a solid grasp of the Spanish language, far beyond what I’d learned in school. I grew comfortable carrying on whole conversations in Spanish—though it was more difficult with groups of people who spoke fast and talked over one another.
It often took me a few seconds to get my thoughts in order in my head before I could deliver them in the foreign tongue. My Argentinian friend had great advice for me: He told me to start my sentences with “O sea,” and to throw in an “o sea” anytime I was figuring out what to say and how to say it in my non-native language. O sea, literally translated as “that is,” is basically the Spanish equivalent of our English “um,” “ah,” “I mean”—words that, no matter how intelligent a speaker you fancy yourself, you probably rely on more than you realize.
Susmita Baral, writing for Quartz, points out that even President Obama uses the filler words. Baral explains that, in spite of their bad rap, “there are a not-insignificant number of studies to suggest we’ve got it all wrong. Not only might filler words be inevitable, it’s possible they’re actually a useful part of our linguistic evolution.”
That was certainly true for me during my time in South America, when I went from being able to utter basic greetings to capable of telling stories from my past in the new language. (Once I started dreaming in Spanish, I wanted to describe those dreams in Spanish, too.)
The findings Baral cites are fascinating: A 2014 study makes a connection between filler words and conscientiousness, and a 2011 study discovered that the words aid in listener recall. Similarly, a study by the University at Rochester in 2003 found that these so-called superfluous words help with listener comprehension.
Obviously, if every other thing out of your mouth is um, uh, like, ah, I mean, you’re not going to impress anyone. And, if you have a point to make, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get it across if you overuse these tiny words. But it turns out there’s a sweet spot: Two filler words per every hundred is what helps people understand a story better, according to Scott Fraundorf, one of the author’s of the listener recall study and psychology professor at University of Pittsburgh.
It’s not just the number of filler words you use that’s significant—when you use them may also matter in how your speech is perceived. When used in the middle of the sentence, they’re more acceptable than when kicking off a sentence.
If you fear that you fall in the camp of relying too much on them, you can try pausing on occasion instead. But ultimately, if you’re able to gather your thoughts and express yourself following an “um,” you’re doing just fine, and pausing can actually feel more awkward than falling back on the trusted “um.”
Honestly, as long as you’re not speaking utter nonsense, it’s unlikely that anyone listening to you is going to latch on to your use of the word “like.” This is great news for all of us who haven’t mastered the habit of filler-free speaking and don’t feel like using an app to tell us we don’t know how to talk well.