Filler words are more than just a bad habit in spoken language. They are linguistic tools used to indicate to the listener that the speaker is pausing to think but not done speaking.
The seemingly meaningless interruptions are actually very meaningful in conversations. A silent pause might be interpreted as a chance for the person you’re talking to start speaking, while a filled pause can show you’re not done speaking yet. Filler words can buy time for your speech to catch up with your thoughts or for you to figure out the right word for a situation.
A filled pause also benefits the listener, letting them know an important word is coming next. Studies show filler words increase comprehension because the listener is given a slight pause to digest what they just heard. Listeners are also more likely to remember a word if it comes after a hesitation.
Filler words can be used to help learn a language as well; however, the use of filled pauses does not decrease with mastery of a language. Toddlers understand a sentence better when there is a filled pause, and those learning English as their second language can signal their fluency by using filler words.
Filler words are more commonly used by women because men are more likely to interrupt a woman who is speaking. Women develop the habit of using filler words when growing up because they are interrupted so much. Instead of pausing when speaking, we fill the space, so the listener does not interrupt.
Men and women have different speech patterns. Why is it women who get looked down upon and made fun of for what is, in essence, a defensive strategy to prevent getting interrupted? This is a form of misogyny little understood and therefore excused in academia and in the professional world. Your intelligence should not be determined by the words you use to speak.
Words and phrases such as “like,” “well” and “you know” function as discourse markers, ignoring their literal meaning to convey something about a sentence. They direct the flow of conversation and some studies show conscientious speakers use more of these phrases to make sure everyone is being heard and understood.
Every language, including sign language, has its own different filler words or sounds. “Like” is the popular filler in the U.S. The word “like” has many different uses. It indicates approximations as opposed to direct quotes– paraphrasing for those of us who don’t remember the exact wording.
It’s helpful to have a shorthand for “said something to the effect of.” “Like” can be used as a preposition to indicate something is similar to something else, used as a conjunction in sentences or used to bring attention to what you are about to say next. Women often use “like” to soften what is being said or to avoid inaccuracy if not relaying exactly correct information.
Common perception concerning the use of filler words provides an example of perhaps misplaced linguistic judgment. We shouldn’t have to talk a certain way to be taken seriously or to be perceived as intelligent. If someone doesn’t have the ability to listen past the “like” and understand what you’re saying, you’re not the one that isn’t smart. It shouldn’t be about how you are saying things; it should be about what you are saying.