by Ginger Philbrick
Some persons find it necessary to interject (multiple times) “you know”, “um”, or “er” during a conversation. It drives me nuts! I sometimes want to say, “No, I don’t know!” Are there any appropriate/courteous responses to the person that may stop this from recurring?
Still Listening, White Stone
Dear Still Listening, I had a great cousin three times removed—or something like that—who was of unquestionably high intelligence. She would often close her eyes, tilt her head back a little, impart some fact or opinion, then suddenly open her eyes and end by asking, “don’t you know?” I never knew whether she really wanted to know if I knew or if she had just adopted “donchano” in place of a period. At any rate, it was distracting and I started waiting for “donchano” instead of paying attention to what came before.
We are not alone in our distraction. Many of us find ourselves at the mercy of people who develop such speech idiosyncrasies and don’t even realize the effect doing so has on others. I am saying it now, they are interest killers!
“Emily Post’s Etiquette” advises that “the way we use words can sabotage our speech without our realizing it.” In a list of conversational habits this popular guide to contemporary manners lists as important to avoid, the first is “peppering your speech with fillers—y’know, like, um, er, uh—and similar meaningless interjections.“
The good news for those who rely on these boring fillers is that they are habits. Just like smoking, snapping gum when you chew it and burping in public, they can be broken—done away with forever! Every time we feel an “uhm,” “er,” “um,” “y’see,” or one of their unbecoming relatives coming on, we can stop and allow a pause to take its place. It takes practice, for sure, but I bet those to whom we talk would much rather experience a pause than a filler.
When we find ourselves in conversation with an uncontrolled pause filler, our response depends on how comfortable we are in talking with them about it. We can kindly say something like, “Fred, I am having trouble concentrating on your story because of all the ‘ers.’ Can you help me?” However, you may just prefer to wait it out and decide whether you want to limit your conversation with the person in the future.
Your question, SL, touches on another speech issue—that of stuttering. I’ve been asked if a person to whom we are talking stutters, and we are certain we know what she means to say, is it all right to finish the sentence for her? The answer is no. Stuttering is a more complicated communication disorder than filling pauses is. It is rude to do anything but wait until she has finished, maintaining eye contact the entire time. It is worth waiting just a little longer for the sake of kindness.
Ginger Philbrick is the owner of Because You Are Polite LLC. You are invited to email your manners questions to her and she will respond as time and space allow. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.