And maybe you're wondering what this has to do with my usual commentary on media, technology, symbolic form, consciousness and culture? If you are, well, you know, I am in the field of communication after all, and nonverbal communication is part of that field.
And as for media ecology, folks sometimes miss the very wide definition of medium that we use in our intellectual tradition, one that encompasses all modes of communication, including our bodies as media, both sensory organs and physical presence and movement, and also, as a component of speech, the sound of our voices and all of the sounds that come out of us, including those that are not linguistic in nature.
So, back in January I was interviewed by Palash Ghosh on the subject of fillers, and subsequently was quoted in an article published in the International Business Times on January 29 2014, entitled Like, Uh, You Know: Why Do Americans Say 'You Know' And Use Other Verbal Fillers So Often?
And as is the custom here on Blog Time Passing, you can click on the link and see the article in its original context, or see it now, right here. But before you do, how about I share with you the original interview, since only a small part of it was excerpted? In some of my previous posts, I've done that as well, so that all of the comments I provided that were not used in the article wouldn't go entirely to waste.
This time around, I thought I'd give you the raw material first, which might provide a better angle on how journalists abstract quotes from interviews and construct their articles. And of course it'll give you a better sense of my own thoughts on the matter, which is, after all, what this blog is all about.
So here now is the interview:
Palash Ghosh: Are the use of “filler” words like “you know” more common now among English-speaking people than in years past?
Lance Strate: The term "fillers; is short for "filled pauses" as they are pauses in speaking that use some form of sound instead of silence, which is why they are also known as "vocalized pauses" and alternately, as "interjections" as they are typically inserted between bits of speech, or sometimes at the beginning or end of an utterance. They are a form of paralanguage, the nonverbal dimension of speech, and every spoken language has its own accompanying paralanguage—the two are inseparable.
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. 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.
Palash Ghosh: What is the reason for the excessive use of 'filler'? Is it nervousness, indecision, lack of confidence, poor vocabulary?
Lance Strate: There is no one reason for their use, but nervousness is certainly one reason, which goes hand in hand with a lack of confidence. 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.
And much depends on the speaking context. For example, teachers, professors, lecturers, and the like 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. By the way, politicians often resort to fillers in press conferences, when they are not reading from a prepared statement or speech. Ronald Reagan, who was dubbed "The Great Communicator," 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 use of fillers skyrocketed. 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.
Palash Ghosh: Do you think phrases like “you know” degrades the language and our communication skills? Does it reflect a decay in western education?
Lance Strate: I think that is much too strong an indictment. As I've said, it's perfectly normal to use fillers, and their use does not reflect a lack of intelligence or education, but what the current state of speech reflects is a decline in emphasis on public speaking. And that is unfortunate, and ought to be rectified. It's not just the use of fillers, but proper pronunciation, the sort of thing they sang about in My Fair Lady, the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, the sort of thing that was an ideal in Jesuit education traditionally, known as eloquentia perfecta, perfect eloquence.
But speech used to be taught in the public schools, and it combined proper pronunciation and enunciation, fluency of language, avoiding fillers, and also speaking with lucidity and logic. The ability to stand up and speak in front of people is very important, it is something individuals need to do in a variety of organizational settings, but today most people focus on putting together a good PowerPoint presentation, and not being able to speak well, and that is truly unfortunate. And it is commonly said that surveys in the US indicate that public speaking is the thing people fear the most, followed in second place by death. And in the context of western education, going back to the medieval trivium, and into the 20th century, yes, it does reflect a serious loss, and one that also impacts reading and writing skills, as vocabulary, for example, is as much a function of the oral as the literate.
Palash Ghosh: How do “fillers” differ from slang?
Lance Strate: Fillers are not really words, at least not when they are used as fillers. Sounds like "um" and "ah" are not words, not symbols that stand for specific meanings, and when words like "well," "like," and "you know" are used as interjections, not used in any relation to their dictionary meaning, then they are not language, they are paralanguage, nonverbal vocalizations.
Slang on the other hand refers to actual words, which is why we can have dictionaries of slang. The old slang word "ain't" means the same as "isn't" for example. The reason why some words are considered slang is that they are only used in spoken language, and have not formally appeared in print. All human cultures have spoken language, but only some have writing systems, and in cultures where there is no writing, there is no slang—the words people speak are the words of the language. So slang does have a vague connection to fillers in that both are related to orality much more so than literacy, but otherwise slang is a form of verbal communication.
Palash Ghosh: Do non-English speakers also use “fillers”?
Lance Strate: Absolutely. Fillers are used in every language group, every dialect, every human population. Or as the saying goes, to fill-err is human...
Palash Ghosh: Is there anything good or beneficial about the use of “filler” words?
Lance Strate: Indeed there is. As I mentioned, it gives speakers time to think about what they are going to say next. And they often function in speech in the same way that punctuation marks function in writing. Moreover, there is an interactive element, providing a space for speakers to see if the persons they are talking to are listening, and for listeners to indicate that they are paying attention and following what is being said, for example, by eye contact, nodding the head, or even responding with another filler like "huh" or "hmmm" or "okay" or "uh huh." Fillers are normal, common, and universal because they are eminently useful to punctuate speech, help speakers compose thoughts and words, and govern interaction among individuals.
Palash Ghosh: Even prominent public figures (including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Caroline Kennedy, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein) frequently use phrases like “you know” in interviews. Does this suggest that even (presumably) well-educated and successful people are not immune to this strange phenomenon? Are verbal skills no longer important even for people who are required to do a lot of public speaking?
Lance Strate: That's right, no one is immune, but there is a difference between, say, teenagers who use fillers frequently in conversation as part of their distinctive mode of talk, people in general in informal conversation where disfluencies of all sorts are perfectly normal and nothing to be ashamed of or concerned about, and public figures who may utilize fillers for the useful functions they provide. But you are also correct in your implication that there has been a distinct decline in public speaking ability throughout our society, a loss of eloquence, and a loss of the expectation for eloquence, so that someone with as poor a set of verbal skills such as George W. Bush could become president, and many even identified with his lack of fluency in the English language (and I am not referring to non-native speakers). While Bush was, in my opinion, unfairly mocked for his deficiencies, that's not something to make fun of, after all, although it does reflect a tragic loss of a vital part of any culture, and there is a relationship between the decline of oratory and spoken language ability in general, and the reduction of so much of our public discourse to infantile babble.
So, I think you can see now how there are connections that can be made to subjects more central to media ecology, such as orality and literacy, and the present condition of public discourse.
And now this, the actual text of the article as published online:
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.
I think you can see from the article's first few paragraphs, as well as from the kinds of questions I was asked in the interview, that there was a negative view of fillers from the beginning, one that I sympathize with, but don't entirely share. So now, here is the first quote excerpted from my interview:
“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.”
And now it's on to someone else for another opinion, one that's more on the negative side than mine:
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.
Now, it's back to one of the points that I made in my interview:
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.”
But back now to the theme of how we've been going to hell in a handbasket, filler-wise:
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.
Okay, so in all fairness now, my view that the use of fillers, however undesirable, does not represent the decline and fall of western civilization actually gets some attention at this point:
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.
I think my view is the more nuanced and balanced, but of course I admit to being entirely biased on the matter. The article now returns to the more entirely negative orientation it began with:
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.”And let's get a little bit more from me on the role of the electronic media in making this an issue in the first place:
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.”
And so we end, once again, on an entirely negative note. And maybe it's because I use more than a few fillers myself when I'm teaching or talking on a panel where I'm not reading from a prepared speech, but I think you can see that there are some differences of opinion on the topic of fillers. So I guess you could say that it's a bit of an issue. Not much of one, to be sure. So it may just be a very slightly controversial subject, but it is an interesting topic talk about, after all. Ummm, ahhh, you know, okay?