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Beyond the Valleyspeak

Um, what? UT researchers find that people who say "like" are more thoughtful

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Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde
UT researchers suggest that people who often speak with filler words such as "like" are more "thoughtful and deliberate."  Filmforager.com

When you’re, like, talking with other people, do you ever find yourself using a bunch of, um, filler words? I mean, like how “valley girls” talk in movies from the '80s and '90s?

If you regularly find yourself sounding like Elle Woods or a California surfer bro, you may find that people are quick to judge you for your speech patterns. But in a recent study published in The Journal of Language and Social Psychology, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that people who often use these filler words may actually be more thoughtful and conscientious towards others.

 Markers including “like,” “you know” and “I mean” were more common “among women, younger participants and more conscientious people,” according to the paper. 

 In the aptly titled, “Um ... Who Like Says You Know: Filler Word Use as a Function of Age, Gender and Personality,” a group of researchers from the university’s Department of Psychology studied the use of five common filler phrases. The paper’s authors analyzed the use of “I mean,” “you know,” “like,” “uh” and “um” in transcripts recorded by a device called the Electronically Activated Recorder.

The EAR (kudos to scientists using straightforward acronyms) sampled the conversations of participants in the study over several days. By studying 263 transcripts from five separate studies, researchers looked to objectively measure what the use of these fillers meant about a user’s personality.

Simple filled pauses such as “uh” and “um” were used at comparable rates across all genders and ages. However, so-called discourse markers including “like,” “you know” and “I mean” were more common “among women, younger participants and more conscientious people,” according to the paper. These findings further suggest that “filler word use can be considered a potential social and personality marker.”

So why do more attentive people tend to talk like the cast from Clueless? One explanation provided by the researchers is that “conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings. When having conversations with listeners, conscientious people use discourse markers, such as ‘I mean’ and ‘you know,’ to imply their desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients. Thus, it is expected that the use of discourse markers may be used to measure the degree to which people have thoughts to express.”

It seems that pop culture and society have unfairly judged people — mainly women — who commonly use “vapid” fillers in conversations. Perhaps we all just need to do a better job of listening beyond the “valleyspeak.”

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