Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When did "um" become a dirty word?

You’ve probably heard that it’s best to ban “um” and “uh” from your public speaking, but those dreaded pause fillers weren’t always forbidden words. In one of the most fascinating chapters of his book Um…Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, And What They Mean, Michael Erard traces the history of um from invisible noise to “unsanitary speech.”

Um hasn’t been a dirty word for very long, Erard found. Up until the 19th century, great orators barely gave the ums and uhs a mention when they laid out the rules of a good speech. But in 1888, Thomas Edison showed how he could faithfully record a person’s voice using his “perfected phonograph”---and suddenly Americans were asking themselves, “do I really sound like that?” Without a face to look at, the ums in speech became more striking. And with the explosion of radio, speakers discarded the loud, bombastic voices they had used to reach live audiences and replaced them with smooth, uninterrupted patter. Erard spoke about the unsanitary um in a recent interview with the Eloquent Woman:


Eloquent Woman: Do we know if "um" speech became less acceptable in other countries when radio and other recorded speech became more accessible?

Michael Erard: Unfortunately, I have no idea but would love to find out. I recently came across a document for preparing U.S. government officials appearing on Arabic-language television; there is not a single mention of disfluency [such as saying,”um”]. This is notable because it suggests that there are so many other cultural and linguistic factors to master and worry about, and of course, that those audiences don't share the aesthetic of umlessness.

EW: When voice recording began, was it speakers or their audiences that drove the new trend toward umless speech?

ME: The lines between speakers and audiences were considerably fuzzy...early adopters of the phonograph, for instance, could use their machines to listen and to record their voices, either in arcades or at home. As for radio, early broadcasters had small internal audiences of radiophiles, early adopters, and investors, all of whom became influential before socially and geographically wider audiences were built.

So there was ample opportunity -- there are decades between the invention of phonography and rise of commercial radio -- for the seeds of a vague discomfort to be planted in small groups who both produced speech and listened to it, and who would ultimately create the standards at the same time they were adapting their own speech production.

What emerged could be called a culture of dictation...that there should be a match, or coordination, between what one says and how that is written. This culture would have taken a while to emerge.

EW: So who was behind this culture of dictation?

ME: My argument assumes…that taste-makers, gatekeepers, broadcasters, teachers, and the like were the origins of umlessness, and that listeners or audiences wouldn't have natively attended to filled pauses. In other words, people didn't show up asking [Toastmasters founder] Ralph Smedley to create a public speaking group that would clean up American speaking. Smedley and others came up with a program that included the prescription "don't say um" because it was clear, direct item in a recipe for eloquence which could be replicated with a wide number of people from many backgrounds. Maybe it was a pet peeve of theirs.

I'm amused the lengths to which defenders of Toastmasters-style umlessness will go to insist about the naturalness of "um" as a distracter, but there's nothing natural about it -- the distraction is a cultural and historical artifact. It only seems "natural" because it's so embedded in our culture.

EW: So what values did those taste-makers associate with um?

ME: One, it was perceived as a Britishism, which a robust American would want to avoid. Two, it wasted people's time, or was perceived as wasting their time. From a commercial advantage, it would have cut time for advertising. Three, it was considered rude -- maybe because of reasons one and two, maybe because of the additional elite distaste.

EW: Are tastes changing when it comes to um? I’ve read that some speakers are being encouraged to sound more natural and less fluent to connect with their audiences.

ME: I recently heard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the radio expressing sadness over the beating of a 16 year-old in Chicago, and I have to say, he didn't sound genuinely sad, outraged, or shocked. It was umless, pauseless, fully fluent. He sounded as if he was reading -- as if his outrage was scripted… the requisite, ritualistic expression of a human emotion by an institution's human spokesperson, but not the genuine interaction between one human and other humans. I think people should talk like people -- why would we want to sound like machines?

I do think we are witnessing a change in the aesthetic of spoken interaction that isn't just about allowing "um" but opens the possibility of a much wider array of stylistic phenomena that happens when humans connect with humans. You see this in the rise of new media (blogs, podcasts, YouTube… You see it in the rising popularity of improv comedy classes as a venue for presentation training. I've done an intro class twice, and at least 50% of the people were there to improve work performance in corporate settings

In the afterword of the paperback version of Um..., I wrote this:

Perhaps the most important point is this: people tell stories about verbal blunders that reflect their vision of what the human self should be like. For someone who believes that the self is beset with hidden struggle, blunders point to that struggle. For someone who thinks that the self should be self-controlled, regulated, and efficient, blunders point to that failure. For someone who thinks that the self should be engaged, authentic, spontaneous, interactive, verbal blunders will be evidence of those qualities.


Freelance writer Becky Ham interviewed Michael, to whom we give many thanks for taking the time to speak with us about the history of um -- especially as he finishes up Babel No More, his new book about language “superlearners,” (and awaits the arrival of a new family member). You can follow him on Twitter to hear more about his latest projects.