According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary a pet peeve is “a frequent subject of complaint.”  I would venture to guess that pretty much everyone has at least one pet peeve; many have a whole long list of them.  This pet peeve may make the list of some: the annoying habit of filling a silent pause with filler in communication.  You know what it is—the “uh” when a person pauses.  It has become more and more prevalent in public speaking, announcers, politicians, newscasters; people we would expect to be good orators.  Did they skip the speech class?

Pet peeve as a term didn’t appear until around 1919.[1]  The thing about these annoyances is what may bother one person is entirely acceptable to the majority of folks.  That in a nutshell is what pet peeves are all about.  Therefore, while some may be quite able to listen to a news reporter talking about the war in Afghanistan and every other sentence is broken by “uh,” others, and I include myself here, find it rather annoying.  It is simply something I can’t quite overlook.  It doesn’t reach my ignore file.  To me, it makes the news reporter appear unable to articulate clear thoughts.  I will soon lose interest in listening to what the reporter is saying.  This goes for any public speaker.  If you want to hold my interest, leave out the “uhs” and “umms.”  Why do people feel the need to fill a pause?

The Psychology of Annoyance

If we take a look at the psychology of what makes something a notable pet peeve, we have to analyze each person individuality, right; because what makes one person grit the teeth doesn’t faze another in the slightest.  Annoyance has actually been studied and there are some generalizations which can be made from the results.

There is evidence what annoys a person is something that person doesn’t do; there is also evidence, though less common, of some annoyances which a person actually does and is annoyed when others do it.[2]  In the study the particular annoyance of interrupted speech was a slight 12 out of 100 reporting any annoyance level, while 15 reported they do the “er” or “uh” when they talk and 19 deny any use of the practice.  The study revealed some of the extremely annoying behaviors of others include:[2]

  • A person losing his or her temper
  • A person telling me to do something I’m just about to do
  • A person ordering me to do something
  • A person continually criticizing something
  • A person being sarcastic
  • Hearing other people talking to others while I’m trying to read or study
  • A person talking to me when I’m reading or studying
  • A person interrupting when I’m talking
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Perceptions of the Public Speaker

What does it say about the person who “uhs” and “ums” his way through a conversation?  If we look at the results of the study, apparently it is not a reflection at all.  To the annoyed person, the speaker sounds less articulate and judging a book by its cover is hard not to do.  The person doesn’t appear intelligent or thoughtful; as if he can’t get the words out because he doesn’t know the words. The speaker is either unsure or uninterested in what he or she is saying.  A person who pauses and silently searches for the word appears to be more thoughtful and wise; someone who is carefully considering the correct word or phrase to express the thought.

Public Speaker;  Source: Microsoft OfficeCredit: Source: Microsoft Office

Another perception of the public speaker who frequently uses interruption fillers is the appearance of a lack of preparedness.  Public speaking is one of the most fear inducing activities a person can try, but being prepared is one of the key elements of a good orator.  Being prepared can instill a sense of confidence. 

This brings us to the next perception.  Fillers indicate a nervous speaker.  Yet this isn’t always true.  A public speaker might use fillers due to nervousness, but in casual conversation fillers probably don’t indicate this at all.  In casual conversation fillers just make the person seem lazy. I fear this is something to which we have grown accustomed. 

You’re probably thinking about now this is all good, but public speakers are supposed to be good so what’s the big deal with the average everyday conversation including a bunch of “uhs” and “ums.”   Perceptions carry out in every realm.  Take a look at any talk show and watch actors try to answer questions without using a boatload of “uhs.”  Actors can deliver memorized lines flawlessly, but when they have to formulate their thoughts it doesn’t seem to come as easily.  Interviews with athletes follow the same path.  It perpetuates the stereotype of “dumb jock.”  It’s all about perception.

Breaking the Habit

Is there a way to break the filler habit and is it even something desired?   My habit was broke (but no, I’m not perfect) when I took a speech class and had to sit through a video of my presentation with the class critiquing it; my oh my, what an eye opener.  Professional public speakers suggest strategies such as considering the words are curse words not to be uttered or replace the “uh” with an appropriate gesture.

Eliminating Annoying Filler Words

 If I use the study as a basis for public opinion, I suspect not many are concerned with this conversation interrupter.  The study was conducted a very long time ago; would the results still hold up? Whatever—another conversation word I tend to dislike because more often than not it is said with disrespect.  However, I must confess I do use this word now and again; and usually in a disrespect-for-the-other person sort of way. 

While we’re on the subject of pet peeves in communication, I must bring up the phrase “it is what it is.”  In my humble opinion, this phrase is used entirely too often and in most cases shows a lack of responsibility for whatever is being talked about at the time.  The first time I heard this phrase it came out of then Vancouver hockey player Todd Bertuzzi’s mouth when he was asked about the booing from Colorado fans because of his career ending hit one of their teams’ player  17 months earlier.[3]  It was a messy affair years ago, but the sting is still felt in Colorado where Bertuzzi is booed every time he steps on the ice.  Could it be I hold the phrase forever linked to Bertuzzi and thus my annoyance at its use?  It is more probable I hear it too often said as a dismissal; as if the incident being talked about is really of no importance; and again, a lack of responsibility which seems so prevalent in current times.

If we look at each generation there are specific phrases of “slang” or as my parents (and teachers) used to call it, “lazy English.”  Almost all tend to be fillers.  Examples include “like” and “you know.”   Another phrase of lazy English is “he (or she) goes” when meaning, “he said.”  I must confess (again) I have often used that particular lazy phrase in the past much to my own chagrin.

Pet Peeve Lists

What makes your list of pet peeves?  Are you perfectly okay with conversations inundated with “ers” and “ums” and “uhs?”  When you listen to a public speaker do you expect an articulate smooth flowing verbal tide; do you tune out when a speaker uses fillers?  Maybe you don’t even notice.  I challenge you to listen carefully and count the fillers the next time you listen to an interview or a presentation or even a newscast. Then listen to a really good public speaker and notice the count is much lower if any at all.  It might not make a difference to you, but for this annoyed person and like-minded folks the count makes all the difference in the world.


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