Episode Transcript – The Truth About Umms and Uhhs

Stories and Strategies Podcast

Episode 83

Guest:  Nick Enfield, BA (Hons) (ANU), PhD (Melbourne), FAHA FASSA FRSN

Published March 5, 2023

Listen to this episode

Bob Newhart  (00:03):


Doug Downs (00:06):

Comedian Bob Newhart was always a master at his craft. One skill he learned deliberately was the ability to stammer and use verbal fillers to augment his delivery.

Bob Newhart (00:20):

I, I’ve wondered if the night that King Kong climbed the outside of the Empire State Building was also the first night for a new guard Mr. Hennessy. Yeah. Yes sir. I hate to bother you at home like this, but yes some something’s come up and it isn’t covered in the Guard’s manual. I looked in the index yesterday. I looked under unauthorized personnel and people without passes and apes and apes toes

Doug Downs (00:58):

Once while recording his sitcom. The Bob Newhart show, a producer asked him would you mind not stammering so much? Newhart replied that stammer built a house in Beverly Hills. Early in his career while recording an audio engineer, heard the ums and uhs and long pauses and cut them out. Newhart told him You’re screwing with the formula. Put those back in today on Stories and Strategies. Ums and uhhs. Take those out or leave those in?


My name is Doug Downs Music Off the top, the theme to the Bob Newhart show, which had a name actually “Home to Emily,” composed by Lorenzo Music and Henrietta Music. Just as we get started, I want to thank Sandor Timar. Sandor’s, the C E O of Aquila PR in Tokyo, Japan. And Sandor recently gave Stories and Strategies a nice shout out on his LinkedIn channel, generated some good response. Thank you, Sandor. My guest this week is linguistics professor at the University of Sydney in Australia. Nick Enfield. Hi Nick.

Nick Enfield (02:19):

Hi, how are you?

Doug Downs (02:21):

Good. Mid twenties today, I think in Sydney. But you, you’ve actually had cooler weather this summer, haven’t you? Not as hot as usual. That’s what I’ve been reading.

Nick Enfield (02:30):

Yeah, that’s right. So it is well, funny old weather as I think everybody tends to comment all around the world, so it’s been cooler and it’s a bit of a relief to the overly hot summers we have, but still a little bit unnerving too.

Doug Downs (02:47):

Yes, in the bigger scheme of things, fewer wildfires, but in the bigger scheme that is concerning. True. Nick, you’re also a co-director of the Sydney Centre for Language Research. You have your PhD in linguistics from the University of Melbourne. You’ve written just by my count, I counted 18 books, but math was not my strong suit. <laugh> books on language linguistics and human sociality, the full library of them is available through your website, which is in the show notes to this podcast you were awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Outstanding Research from the University of Sydney. You’re a fellow at the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, as well as the Royal Society of New South Wales and the Australian Academy of Humanities. And you’ve written for a lot of newspapers, the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, the Wall Street Journal and Science. It’s great to have you on the podcast. Nick,

Nick Enfield (03:41):

Thank you very much for having me

Doug Downs (03:43):

First. Your book, I’m not quite done but I’m most of the way now How we talk is extraordinary. And I think where we should start the conversation is the Conversation Machine. What do you mean by that? And I think it sort of sets the context for the rest of what we’re going to talk about.

Nick Enfield (04:05):

Well, the Conversation Machine is actually the original title that I wanted to give that book. It’s called How We Talk After Books that are intended for broader Audiences end up being retitled at the last minute, thanks to boardroom Conversations with publishers. And my original title was The Conversation Machine, which is really the concept at the core of the book. So language is this unique thing. Humans have it, it’s elaborated in these wonderful ways around the world. And linguists try to understand what do all humans share that allows us to learn language and to use language in the way that we do. And this book is really my answer to that question. And the answer being, well, we have something called the Conversation Machine, and that is a combination of aspects of our psychology, aspects of our mind, aspects of our social instincts if you like, and also our aspects of our social organization that all kind of conspire to allow us to use language in the way that we do. And my argument is that you only really see that when you examine how we talk, when you look at free flowing conversation, linguistics and the study of language have not tended to really focus on that. It’s a field that is focused I guess traditionally on written language and on more formal forms of language. And so we learn new things in different things when we look at the messiness of real human conversation and my colleagues find is that messy human conversation opens up new understandings of what it means to be a linguistic animal.

Doug Downs (05:50):

And the idea of the conversation machine is that there is a cadence or a flow, or dare I say, a type of dance that’s executed between the two speakers and the two listeners or more involved in a conversation. And if one is out of step or out of kilter or out of cadence, it can throw the other one off either the speaker or the listener. Do I have that right?

Nick Enfield (06:14):

Yeah, that’s right. It’s certainly an important component of the idea. So I suppose that the key concept that captures what you just said is the idea that conversation is a form of collaboration, a form of cooperation. And so when we think about language, we, it’s very easy to think about monologue and to think of, for example, you know, read somebody’s speech or you read a news article or something and there’s one voice. Even if you read a novel, you have obviously dialogue within the novel, but this is all coming from one author. But when you get into a conversation, you have two people who it’s as if they’ve kind of got into a vehicle together but there isn’t one driver. They’re alternating between the role of driving and being a passenger in some sense. But they’re each participating, they each have to play a role to collaboratively move this thing forward, which we want to call a conversation. So one of the really important ideas about what we learned from language by looking at conversation is that even whether you’re a speaker or a listener, you’re playing a role, you have a certain degree of accountability for that role, and you are contributing in a sense to a collaborative enterprise to get through the conversation to a place where you both want to go

Doug Downs (07:38):

And ums and uhs, which I’ll call verbal fillers. I’ve heard the term used. You might call them traffic signals, which from what I’m reading in your book, serve purposes for both the speaker and the listener.

Nick Enfield (07:56):

Yeah, that’s right. So ums and uhs are very widely disparaged. If you go online and look for advice for public speaking, if you go to workshop and look for advice on public speaking or learn how to present in front of people, do media interviews, these are the things that probably one of the first things you’ll get told is get rid of these ums and uhs that

Doug Downs (08:21):

All the time, Nick, all the time as an editor all the time,

Nick Enfield (08:25):

They must go. So you certainly wouldn’t add them if you were writing something. Okay, but let’s say disfluency when you’re writing something and you might pause something out and then kind of rewrite it. And when you read my written work, you don’t see all those stops and starts and reformulations and so on. But in conversation, in interaction, it’s a real time process. It’s unfolding. What you are hearing is happening at the same time as I’m producing it. So I don’t get time to polish it, I don’t get time to formulate it perfectly. And so nobody’s perfect language is very demanding. It’s going by very quickly. So there’s very few people who can speak perfectly with never an error and never any doubt about which word they want to choose next. So these words like um and uhh and hesitation markers and so forth, help to deal with this because what they do is, let’s say I am speaking to you, I’m searching for a word and I haven’t finished what I want to say.


Well, I could just go silent as my mental machinery is kind of ticking over, but you wouldn’t really know what was happening. Okay? You wouldn’t know, am I finished or what’s happening? Is he still going to say some more? So things like umm and uhh serve as what I call traffic signals in that context because they’re saying, wait, I’m not done. There’s more to come now seen that way you can say, well, they’re very functional and they’re cooperative because what they do is they allow you to then wait without worrying that you’ve missed your cue to start talking. So they’re really quite useful in terms of organizing the conversation and the back and forth between people. The problem with them, of course, is that they reveal that you are having trouble formulating what you want to say. And sometimes that’s just not a problem. When you’re with friends, you are talking on the fly. I think the thing about public speaking is that you’re supposed to know exactly what you want to say. You’re supposed to be able to deliver what you want to say without sort of revealing that you’re having any trouble with that. And that’s why there is an effect of using too many ums. And I, in public speaking, people in the audience are much more sensitive to it in those formal settings than they are if you’re just having a face-to-face conversation with them.

Doug Downs (11:05):

So I get the benefit for the speaker then of the traffic signal that instead of leaving silence, I’m sort of holding my place so I can continue with what I want to say. Is there a benefit to the listener though? Are you sending a signal to the listener that the next thing I’m about to say is something that needed my careful thought before I said it?

Nick Enfield (11:27):

Absolutely. I think that’s a great way of putting it, that it does signal to the listener that there’s some extra thought going in here. Or it might also signal that there’s hesitation or doubt. So you might be about to deliver a piece of difficult news or something that you expect the other person doesn’t want to hear so much. Sometimes it’s not that negative. So we find in studies of telephone calls back in the day when people used the telephone a bit more exclusively than they now do, there was a very regular pattern that you would find if you listen to telephone calls and people would open the call with a bit of greetings, hi, how are you? Good, thanks. How are you? Little bit of small talk. And then the caller would say and then whatever followed would be the reason for the call. Why are they calling?


And so that’s a really very interesting puzzle as to why came to have that very specific function in phone calls. But what it clear, because you can see that it had that function, it meant that for the listener, it was indeed a very useful signal because it set off this alert. Oh, okay, now we’re done with the sort of preliminaries. Now we’re getting down to the business of the call. I got to pay a bit better attention. And so the use of the arm is quite well fitted to that because the arm says to the other person, okay, there’s something coming up where I have to pay a slightly better attention or sort of concentrate a bit to try to piece together what’s coming with what just came before. And that would be an example of how it’s useful for the listener

Doug Downs (13:09):

At Stories and Strategies we make podcasts for clients anywhere in the world, including Australia. How popular have podcasts become down under? Well, 37% of the Australian population, 12 and up listens to at least one podcast every month, 37%. Okay. Some quick math, 37% of the Aussie population over 12 is 7.7 million people. There are 6 million Netflix subscribers in Australia. There are more podcast listeners in Australia than Netflix subscribers. Maybe a podcast is right for you or your organization. Want to talk about it? Send me an email personally, doug@storiesandstrategies.ca and we’ll set something up. We’ll talk podcasts and maybe swap some Netflix ideas.


In your book you say there are some 6,000 languages and dialects in the world, and I’m sure that’s expanding all the time. Is there a single language across the face of the earth where umm, like, so, some of these verbal fillers where there’s no word for those or do these verbal fillers exist in all 6,000 languages?

Nick Enfield (14:35):

Well, I would bet a large sum of money that you would never find a language that lacked these kinds of signals. It’s hard to, I mean, I can’t prove it because is this an interesting problem? Linguists study languages of the world, and as you say, there are thousands of them. The problem is that you don’t have really good quality data about all of the thousands of languages of the world. And if you do have some data, oftentimes it’s not going to be data about the kind of messy context of everyday interaction. It’s more going to be written and more formalized. And so sometimes you can go to the library, try to get in information about a language and come up short with information about this particular aspect of language. But where we have got data and where we’ve looked, which is in dozens and dozens of languages from very every corner of the world, really, you immediately find these things.


All you have to do is get a tape recording of people who are having a natural conversation around their home or their village, and immediately you’ll begin to hear these ums and ahs. You’ll be, you’ll hear words like, huh, these kinds of organizational interjections that people need to use. And that’s simply because everywhere you go, people converse. They engage in this cooperative form of communication and everywhere you go, they are needing to signal their kind of participation, what they’re doing at the moment. Am I still holding the floor? Am I yielding the floor to you? These forms of cooperative communication as far as we now are universal among human groups.

Doug Downs (16:18):

So they have purpose. I want to play for you a clip from Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Most Canadians will already know which one he’s being asked what his family is doing to cut back on the usage of plastics to help the environment

Reporter (16:35):

What do you and your family do to cut back on plastics?

Justin Trudeau (16:39):

We have recently switched to drinking water bottles out of water when we have water bottles out of plastic away from plastic towards paper like drink box, water bottles sort of things. There’s a number…

Nick Enfield (16:58):

Well, it’s a great example of what we would call disfluency in technical terms. I think that it’s a very good example of a case where you would assume he hasn’t prepared his mind is on something else. And as I was saying earlier on, if you are in a conversation that’s completely informal with close friends, that’s how it is. We don’t prepare for everything we’re going to say. We don’t rehearse the things we’re going to say. But when you are the prime minister and you are in front of television cameras and you’re talking about policy and practice, it’s expected that you’ve thought about what you are talking about and that you have things straight in your mind. So fluency really doesn’t give you the sense that you have things straight in your mind. And so this certainly a bad error for him from a kind of performance point of view. As a politician you are performing and you need to give people, you need to reassure people that you, what you’re talking about, you’re committed to your ideas and your clear in your mind. And so it’s pretty hard for him, I think, in that context to argue that he was clear in his mind if he was unable to deliver a pretty simple sounding message in his linguistic performance,

Doug Downs (18:22):

He did win the election. So that comes back to, so how harmful are these? If you have a few ums and uhs, first of all, they may have purpose, are they all that harmful? And should you be working to edit all of them out as Toastmasters and some of the others seem to want you to?

Nick Enfield (18:39):

I don’t think that you’d call them harmful. I know that people sometimes find them annoying. I mean, my stance about this is the same as my general stance about languages. And that is that you need to use it mindfully. So you need to be aware of the words that you’re choosing, the formulations that you’re using, the habits that you have. You need to have some kind of heightened awareness and pay attention to the effects that language has, and then use it strategically with that awareness. And so sometimes you find that an umm or an uhh well placed has a useful function, and sometimes you want to exploit that, and other times it’s too much or it’s distracting or for your audience and you want to avoid that. So I think the key is being more conscious and more mindful about the effects that language has on others, and then making decisions accordingly.

Doug Downs (19:41):

Last question while I have you. The term conversational overlapping, and the idea that when someone is talking, if it’s your habits to say, right, umm hmmm, yeah. And as a podcast producer, I hear some people who have that approach, and I’ve always worked to try to help strip that out. The idea that it’s distracting for the speaker, I might be wrong, conversational overlapping in the right context and the right mindfulness has valuable usage.

Nick Enfield (20:15):

Absolutely. So it’s a very important feature of certain aspects of language that you do need to hear from your listener, that kind of feedback. So in the book How We Talk, I cite a study by Janet Bais and her colleagues, which looks at people telling narratives to other people. They’re actually talking about near death experiences that they’ve had. So they’re little kind of stories I tell you about what happened to me at this time in the past. And the listeners will naturally be saying things like, ah-huh, oh wow. Mm-hmm. These kinds of little interjections through the course of the story. And when they studied these interjections, they found that they were carefully timed and they would occur at certain points that would match in a way the progression of the narrative that was being told. And then they would also match with the conclusion of the narrative.


And the whole thing would land well if the listener was giving the right kind of feedback. And in the experiment, they distracted the listeners with a certain kind of task. So for example, the listener was told, unbeknownst to the storyteller that they had to monitor for any time the storyteller told used a word that started with the letter T <laugh> and that they had to press a little button under the desk every time this happened. So it completely distracted them from actually following the content of the story. So they were producing many fewer ahas. They were not paying attention to this story. So they didn’t know when they were supposed to say, wow, oh my God. And what happened was that the storytellers stories kind of fell apart. They became much less fluent and much less able to stitch their story together and to kind of make it land well.


And it was a very good illustration of how speakers are not just speaking into a void. You have a listener and the listener has a part to play. So they’ve got to show that they’re paying attention, that they’re interested in what you’re saying. And so that would be an example of something you might call conversational overlapping that shows some affiliation and some interest in what you’re saying. And that is, I think, a really good illustration of this conversation machine idea that two or more people are really playing roles, complimentary roles in language usage. And it’s, it’s never really a monologue.

Doug Downs (22:45):

I loved the book. It’s How We Talk. It’s one of the 18 on your website. The website link is in the show notes to the podcast. I read probably half the book, Nick sent it to me about four in o’clock, four o’clock in the afternoon my time. And I had read half the book by about nine o’clock that evening. Just completely stole my day. Thank you, Nick. Thank you. It’s completely stole the rest of my day, and I’ll finish, but it is, I read a lot of these and this one is particularly good. And thank you for being on the podcast today.

Nick Enfield (23:18):

Thanks very much for having me.

Doug Downs (23:19):

If you’d like to send a message to my guest, professor Nick Enfield, his email is also in the show notes, stories and strategies as a co-production of J G R Communications and Stories and Strategies podcasts. What would help if you could leave a rating for this podcast in your podcast app? It sends a signal to other listeners that this is a podcast worth listening to. And thank you for listening.