Philip Hensher: Er, well, um ... And now I have your full attention

There is more to the projection of competency than learning how to speak without stumbling

Tuesday 25 September 2007 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Language isn't just meaning. Conversely, not all non-verbal communications are bodily; some come from the mouth, too. An interesting piece of academic research from Scotland has focussed on those much-despised elements of speech, "ums" and "ers". Technically known as "fillers", they are strongly criticized by all teachers of public discourse as promoting an image of uncertainty and vagueness. The researchers, however, suggest that these fillers might serve a useful purpose, as sirens on the ambulances of significance

The research invited volunteers to listen to a series of spoken sentences. Some were interrupted by non-verbal fillers such as "er" and "um"; others were spoken without hesitation. The results were interesting. The inarticulate speaker registered much more powerfully in the minds of the listeners. An hour after listening, the volunteers got 62 per cent of the words correct in the stumbled-over sentence, compared to 55 per cent of those in the strictly enunciated and articulate performance.

Research into non-verbal fillers has expanded a great deal recently, since they present a significant problem to automatic transcription machines. In this case, researchers are trying to explain this odd psychological effect. It seems as if the listener, alerted by stumbling to a speaker's struggling with a difficult concept, automatically pays more attention. They might want to help out; they might simply be alerted to complexities. Either way, it does seem as if the connection between slickness of presentation and superficiality, between inarticulacy and profundity is to some degree hardwired in our brains.

That comes as a great relief to someone like me who can't bring out a sentence without stumbling over a word or two. The researchers might, however, want to add to their researches questions of "hedging" phrases as well as fillers – as well as inarticulate noises, there are those "sort of," "kind of", "I mean", "you know what I mean" phrases which drive educated people wild with fury. My personal impression is that when someone, like, starts like using these like words that mean like nothing 10 times in a sentence, the effect is quite opposite to the one observed with fillers. It tends to lull the listener into a sense that nothing much is being said here, and he can switch off until it is time for his own, like, contribution.

Certainly when transcribed, proper unguarded speech looks absolutely atrocious. Compare the average, cleaned-up version of Hansard with a literal stretch of someone talking in parliament. This, remember, is more formal than the average venture into speech. "I think it is a matter of speculation but I think he either would have had to answer or failure to answer would perhaps have attracted more public er comment and judgment than it necessarily did er without it it being televised but the I think I think I've given away I've given way quite a number of times and I want I've given away a number of times and I would like to move on to some of the reservations which er we do have er Madam er Madam Deputy Speaker."

Politicians and public speakers of all varieties are warned against ums and ahs, against fillers and hedgers. The instruction, which you can hear weighing heavily on all manner of public speakers, is to say only three words at a time, and then pause.

I don't know. People who really talk like that tend to sound rather like barristers let loose from their customary setting. They tend to sound very much like people reading from an autocue, and not thinking as they speak – an impression not at all far from the reality. It's worth thinking of the different ways in which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown speak spontaneously, as opposed to their slick and scripted performances. One's impression was that both have a large number of "fillers"; but Blair had, in addition, a surprisingly high proportion of "hedgers", of "y'knows" and "I mean"s for an educated person. The two factors seemed to pull in different directions, both alerting our attention and dissipating it. Brown's ah-ing and um-ing is more Henry James-like, and does not diminish his sense of authority.

What the research does not explore is the degree to which this tendency to um and ah is a cultural one and not universal. I wonder whether it might not be an Anglophone one, if not specifically a British habit. Researchers into the field are quick to tell us that other languages have similar devices. Speakers of Mandarin say "zhege", Japanese use "ano" or "eto", the French have a well-known "euh" noise. Obviously these are untranslatable, but the habit of hesitancy seems to me more deeply rooted in English speech than in many others.

The research should be of the highest interest to politicians. There is much more to the projection of competency than learning how to speak without stumbling, and speaking without stumbling may actually be counter-productive. Can it possibly be, for instance, that Boris Johnson's campaign to become mayor will actually be helped by his characteristic hesitancy of speech; that rather than, as we all thought, his way with words was at odds with his conspicuous high intelligence, it might actually be the product of that thoughtfulness?

The researchers have clearly stumbled across something which we might call the Higher Inarticulacy. I for one am rather pleased at last to have a diagnosis for my own inability to get from one verb to the next without making a short and sheeplike bleat.

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