Ep. 91, "Um, Like, So": How Filler Words Can Be Effective in Communication | Summary and Q&A

May 23, 2023
Stanford GSB Podcasts
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Ep. 91, "Um, Like, So": How Filler Words Can Be Effective in Communication

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In this episode, Matt Abrahams speaks with Valerie Fridland, a professor of social linguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno, about the relationship between language and society. They discuss the purpose of language as both a means of communication and a way to convey social messages. They also delve into the power of words like "like" and "so," the use of filler words like "uh" and "um," the impact of vocal quality in sentence endings, the appropriateness of emojis in business communication, and the effectiveness of communication advice received. Valerie emphasizes the importance of listening, responding kindly and compassionately, and relaxing in successful communication.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the purpose of language?

The purpose of language is twofold. Firstly, it is to communicate information effectively. Secondly, language is social and helps convey feelings about the message, the relationship between speakers, and the welcome reception of the information.

Q: Can you talk about the power of the word "like" and "so"?

"Like" and "so" are valuable words that serve specific purposes in communication. "Like" has a variety of uses, including as an approximator, a sentence particle, and a qualitative verb. It helps in conveying imprecise information, connecting two phrases, and providing subjective interpretation of events. Similarly, "so" functions as a sentence-initial or transitional word that connects what is being said to what was previously said. These words have power and purpose, despite being often criticized as unnecessary.

Q: Why do people use phrases like "I mean" and "you know" without saying anything beforehand?

Phrases like "I mean" and "you know" are used to refine or clarify something that was said or to involve the listener in a collaborative conversation. "I mean" indicates a further explanation or an attempt to connect what is being said to what the listener said. "You know" invites the listener to participate in collective storytelling or conversation building. While these phrases can be effective in conveying additional information, they can also be undesirable for some because they require the listener to put in extra effort to understand.

Q: What is the purpose of filler words like "uh" and "um"?

Filler words, also known as filled pauses, serve a cognitive function. They signal cognitive processing load and occur before difficult words, abstract words, less common words, or syntactically complex structures. Filler words can help indicate that the speaker needs a brief pause or that they are still in the process of formulating their thoughts. From a linguistic standpoint, filler words are not problematic, but socially they may be disliked. However, linguistic knowledge can be used to minimize filler word usage by making communication more familiar, less difficult, and less abstract.

Q: How does vocal quality affect sentence endings?

Sentence endings can vary in terms of vocal quality, such as going up in pitch (uptalk) or getting quiet or vocal fry. Uptalk, though associated with rising intonation questions, can be used to signal continuation of a speech stream, particularly in contexts where women are often talked over. Vocal fry, characterized by a drop in pitch, signals the end of a thought and is prevalent in women's speech in the United States. Both vocal patterns convey social cues and may be viewed positively or negatively depending on the audience.

Q: Are emojis appropriate in business communication?

Emojis have become more prevalent in business communication, especially in email and text messaging, where non-verbal cues are absent. Emojis serve as a way to convey emotional and social messages that words alone may not effectively communicate. They can help indicate tone, add context, and enhance understanding. However, the appropriateness of using emojis depends on the audience and the nature of the communication. It's important to consider the receiver's preferences and potential professional norms.

Q: What is the linguistic perspective on the name "Think Fast, Talk Smart"?

The name "Think Fast, Talk Smart" is not grammatically incorrect, and its unique quality makes it memorable, which is an important aspect of marketing and branding. By deviating from the norm, the name stands out and captures attention. From a linguistic standpoint, it is a successful choice.

Q: What is the best communication advice you ever received?

The best communication advice Valerie received is that sometimes listening is more important than speaking, especially in academic settings where interpersonal dynamics can be complex. By carefully listening to others' needs and concerns, one can become a more effective speaker and teacher.

Q: Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Valerie admires Martin Luther King for his impactful speeches that resonate emotionally and Taylor Swift for her ability to connect with and influence young people, particularly young women. Both speakers demonstrate the power of effective communication in engaging and inspiring their audiences.

Q: What are the first three ingredients in a successful communication recipe?

Valerie identifies listening well, responding kindly and compassionately, and relaxing as the key ingredients for successful communication. Actively listening, showing empathy, and being at ease contribute to effective and meaningful interactions.


Effective communication involves not only transmitting information accurately but also understanding and conveying social messages. Words like "like" and "so" serve valuable purposes and should not be dismissed as unnecessary. Filler words, such as "uh" and "um," indicate cognitive processing and can be minimized through familiarity, simplicity, and practice. Vocal patterns like uptalk and vocal fry have social meanings and may be associated with gender or age. Emojis can be appropriate in business communication when used thoughtfully to convey tone, context, or emotion. Communication advice should include active listening, kindness, and relaxation. Successful communication encompasses the ability to connect with and influence different audiences. Finally, the recipe for successful communication involves listening well, responding compassionately, and remaining relaxed.

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