This morning I was going to write a post about a nifty-sounding app that's basically a speech coach that fits in your pocket. It analyzes your speaking style, flagging up filler words like "um" and "just" so you can zap them from your vocabulary and sound more authoritative.

All I needed to kick off the piece was a few references to studies that show exactly how harmful these filler words can be to your credibility. I mean, everyone knows you actually sound like, um, a total fool if you use them, right? The only trouble was when I started looking, I found a bunch of fascinating stories pointing in the other direction.

Filler words might not be that bad after all -- at least not in everyday speech.

Filler words aren't just for airheads.

Many of the articles I came across were referencing one study published in in the June 2014 issue of Journal of Language and Social Psychology, which analyzed more than 200 transcripts of everyday speech for the use of filler words. The first startling finding? The Valley Girl associations of filler words aside, men and women of all ages are equally likely to use so-called "filled pauses" like "um" and "uh."

The second even more startling finding? Other types of filler words, such as "You know," "I mean," and "like," which scientists term "discourse markers," are indeed used more by young women. But they're also more common in the speech of another group which might surprise you more -- the conscientious.

"The possible explanation for this association is that conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings. When having conversations with listeners, conscientious people use discourse markers, such as I mean and you know, to imply their desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients," explain the study authors.

Writing for the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog, Christian Jarrett puts this slightly differently: "Discourse fillers are a sign of more considered speech." Or to be even more plain about it, if you use "like" a lot, it doesn't mean you're an airhead. It's actually more likely to be a sign of your thoughtfulness.

This isn't the only study which found that "like" and other much criticized filler words are actually a signal that the speaker is thinking and caring, rather than momentary blips of brainlessness. Psychologist Jean E. Fox Tree of the University of California, Santa Cruz has focused her whole career on studying filler words.

"This is not a very popular research topic," she told USCS's Science Notes in a fascinating interview, but where others see "verbal garbage" or "trash words," Fox Tree finds meaning.

According to her research, "like" is often used by a speaker to signal imprecision (i.e "He's, like, 40." to mean "He's approximately 40 but I'm not really sure."). "Um" and "uh" warn the listener that a pause is coming. "Uh is used to signal an upcoming minor delay, while um is used to signal a major upcoming delay. By giving forewarning, a speaker tells her listener to adjust his comprehension process," the post explains.

Context is key.

The fact is that these words aren't "filler" at all, but instead have real purpose in everyday speech is fascinating (if still slightly contentious) for linguists. But does that really matter to most folks if the end effect is still to make you look dumb? After all, the internet (and is filled with posts and articles warning of the dire professional consequences of allowing these words into your speech.

The truth is these posts are right -- but only in some contexts. In formal settings when you're trying to impress -- a speech, presentation, job interview, or best man toast -- eliminating filler words is going to make you sound more credible and authoritative.

Even Fox Tree tells her daughter to stop saying "like" so much. "There's a certain time and place for it, because of the impression that it makes on other people... You should learn how to speak without them for public speaking," she says of filler words. "But they do have a place in natural dialogue," she adds.

Not only are you unlikely to succeed in eliminating filter words from everyday language entirely, you probably wouldn't even want to do so even if you could. Speaking without the occasional "uh" and "like" over lunch won't make you sound like an uber professional. Science suggests it's more likely that you'll come across as an inconsiderate loudmouth.

The bottom line: if you're giving a speech, listen to the experts and avoid the filler words. Otherwise, try to sounding like a bad Valley Girl stereotype, but otherwise don't sweat a few "ums" and "likes" every now and again. It's not a sign of stupidity. It's a sign of normal human consideration.

Published on: May 25, 2016