Professional Development

Why It’s Okay To Use “Um” and “Like” When You Talk—Really

Written by Peter Jones

Yes, you should never use filler words like “um” and “like” in your writing. But sometimes, in conversation, you might find you need to buy yourself a bit of time to gather your thoughts and figure out what it is you’re trying to say.

It’s true that most job interview advice blogs will tell you to avoid using them at all costs, because they can make you sound unintelligent or unprepared. But filler words are a natural part of the way people speak these days, so if you can utilize them economically and well in your conversation, you just might be able to get the best of both worlds. You’ll have the time to formulate your sentences and keep your speech clean and less muddled, but you won’t get carried away with your constant “umm”ing and “like”-ing.

Filler words are used for the following reasons.

They Show That You’re Thinking

If you need another few seconds to formulate your sentence, you can throw in an “errr” or a “basically”… and then continue on from there. It helps you not be interrupted. And helps you say precisely what you’d like to say once you say it.

They Soften What You’re Going to Say

If you’re going to say something a little harsh,  temper it with a few conversational filler words to keep it casual. Just to make sure your friend or colleague doesn’t think you’re being cold or cruel. i.e. “You have a little, like, something in your teeth?”

They Can Strengthen or Weaken What You’re Saying

Filler words can change the tone of a sentence, either to qualify your statement and make it weaker, or to add extra emphasis and authority. Depending on the word, you can make what you’re saying sound like a stab in the dark, or a definitive conclusion.

They Help You Stall

You grabbed the mic; it’s your turn to talk and you have something super important to say. The stakes are high. Trouble is, you haven’t quite figured out what that is yet. A few ummms and weeeellls…. might just give you the time you need to strategize.

They Make Your Listener Feel Included

Throwing in a little “you know?” at the end of what you’re saying doesn’t have to make you sound like a Valley girl. It could just be a friendly way of making sure whomever you’re talking to is still with you and feels included.

So you see, filler words, when used in moderation, can actually be a conversational asset. Just don’t get too carried away and you can feel free to use these natural bits of speech as you see fit.

About the author

Peter Jones