Few people are capable of speaking spontaneously without, er, you know, pausing and using filler words every now and again. However, we all differ in the extent to which we do this, and now a study by US researchers has examined how use of filler words varies according to age, gender and personality.
The purpose of these kinds of words is not straightforward – they can be a sign of being tongue tied, but they can also be a way to keep hold of one’s turn in a conversation, to form a bridge between phrases or sections of conversation, to seek consensus, or convey uncertainty.
Use of discourse markers was more frequent among younger people, and among women versus men. However, the gender difference was only present in teen and student participants, and had disappeared from age 23 and up. Discourse markers were also used more frequently by people with a more conscientious personality. Uhs and ums became less common with age, but their use was not related to gender or personality. This last point is somewhat surprising since such hesitations are often assumed to be a sign of anxiety.
Why should use of phrases such as “like” and “you know” be related to conscientiousness? One possibility is that this is a false positive result – the researchers performed multiple comparisons looking for links between personality and word use, and this is known to increase the risk of spurious findings. However, assuming the finding is reliable, the researchers believe the explanation is that “conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings,” and their use of discourse markers shows they have a “desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients.”
Stated slightly differently, discourse fillers are a sign of more considered speech, and so it makes sense that conscientious people use them more often. This is a result that may surprise some, including the veteran actress Miriam Margoyles, who publicly castigated pop star Wil.I.Am for his overuse of “like“. The researchers didn’t propose any explanation for why age and gender are related to use of discourse fillers.
Laserna and her team believe their findings are useful because they suggest that people’s habits of speech can be used to make inferences about their personality, age and gender. “From a methodological standpoint, the use of discourse markers can provide a quick behavioural measure of personality traits,” they said. So, you know, don’t be put off next time you hear someone, like, using discourse fillers. I mean, it could actually be a sign that they’re conscientious.
Laserna, C., Seih, Y., & Pennebaker, J. (2014). Um . . . Who Like Says You Know: Filler Word Use as a Function of Age, Gender, and Personality Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33 (3), 328-338 DOI: 10.1177/0261927X14526993
The effect of, er, hesitations in speech
Greater use of “I” and “me” as a mark of interpersonal distress
Miriam Margolyes castigates Wil.I.Am for his use of the discourse filler “like”