“Um, Ah, If I Wrote Like I Talk, Then Like, Ah…”


Can you imagine how painful it would if we had to communicate in writing the words we actually speak? Come to think of it, this might be precisely how educators go about transforming the horrendous language skills some people have.

I was conducting a mock interview not long ago with a person who was pretty sure their interview skills were top-notch. While they had great content to share from their present and past to prove they had the experience to compete for employment, what they also had was a constant use of the words, ‘like’, ‘um’ and ‘ah’. At one point, I actually realized I had shifted from evaluating the strength of their answer to counting the number of times they used these three words.

So why do people consciously or unconsciously overuse these words? I believe the words, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ are used most often to hold the speakers place in the conversation, while their brain accesses memory files and arranges their thoughts in a meaningful way so that when the spoken words are uttered, it sounds coherent. It’s as if the person is saying, “I’ve got something else I want to add, just give me a moment to organize things in the way I want to share them; here it comes…right, I’m ready.”

Every now and then this kind of behaviour creates for the speaker a real unexpected problem. The overuse of, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ can cause a person to finish a thought and then the mouth almost instinctively throws in one last, ‘um’. The listener’s interest is piqued as the speaker has something further to add, so they themselves go silent and wait with anticipation to whatever is about to be said. The problem? The speaker who uttered the dreaded ‘um’ has nothing further to add whatsoever, and so lamely says something like, “Ah, it’s okay.”

What I find most interesting myself as someone who is often on the receiving end, is that the speakers either know they have this habit as others have mentioned it to them, or they are completely oblivious to this habit. They may say therefore, “I know, I know it’s a bad habit; everybody tells me!” Or they say, “Really? Wow! I had no idea!”

Here’s the thing about your language skills: you communicate much more than words alone. When you listen to someone, words combine with tone, body language, voice intensity, vocabulary, facial expression, eye contact etc.; all of which strengthen or detract from the content of the message you are delivering. If for example someone says, “Help me please, I’m desperate” and has a strained expression, their words are barely audible but intense and their eyes a wide and fixed on ours, – we do not doubt their plea. However, were they to say, “Help me please, I’m desperate” while shrugging their shoulders, grinning ear to ear and the words uttered in a mocked tone, then we might be left with an impression they aren’t really serious.

It’s the same when we overuse the word, ‘like’. “Could you like, help me, ’cause like, I’m – you know – like, desperate.” Is the visualization in your head right now of the person uttering this sentence a young, poorly educated female? If I told you it was really a university educated senior management person in the commodities sector would that image seem genuine? No probably not. So how we communicate does conjure up things we associate with people who talk a certain way.

Therefore others who hear us make assumptions about our education level, our professionalism, our income level, our intelligence; all from our vocabulary. Lest you think that it is wrong of people to make all these assumptions and judge you based on these alone, don’t exclude yourself from judging others based on the same criteria. As we listen to others speak, our minds take in all this data and access past memories and experiences we have had dealing with others who have appeared to us to be similar. In a matter of seconds, we think, slang = casual, overuse of ‘like’ = valley girl, overuse of ‘um’ and ‘ah’ = slow thinker. Of course these associations might not match your own experience, but they might match other people; people who are interviewing you for a job, or deciding whether or not they can help you in some way.

One way to change how you are perceived if you wish to do so in the first place of course, is to simply pause and be silent instead of using the dreaded, ‘um’ or ‘ah’. Silence is actually very effective when used in speech as it shows you are reflective.

If something is similar to something else, by all means say that this thing is like that thing in a comparative sense. However saying, “This apple is like amazing!” isn’t any more effective than just saying, “This apple is amazing!” The word, ‘like’ in this sense is unnecessary and inappropriate. Do yourself a favour and stop overusing it and using it in the wrong context.

The wonderful thing about your language skills is that unlike so many barriers to employment or promotions is language is entirely within your control to use and improve. Not only should you choose your words wisely, you can improve your skills in this area as you can with any other skill.

Then, you’d be like, totally amazing.

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2 thoughts on ““Um, Ah, If I Wrote Like I Talk, Then Like, Ah…”

  1. What you say is so true. It may be very difficult change a bad habit, but the effort is worth it. So much is assumed by others from your language both verbal and body, you can really make a bad impression when that is the last thing you want to do.

    Liked by 1 person

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