So like, speech fillers could,uh, actually, you know, work for you. Here’s how.

Um, ah, uh.. Like, so, you know, I mean.. These ‘words’ are called ‘space-fillers’. And were previously agreed wholeheartedly to be bad for your reputation.

A 1995 study showed that people who use these space-fillers were rated as second-favourably to people who used none at all. Since then we’ve all likely come across articles that highlight how using these words, especially as a woman, can lead people to think of us insecure and unsure- of ourselves and what we have to say. This obviously reflects badly in our personal impressions and more consequentially, in our careers.

The truth is, these words are universal, in every language, from Korean to French. Not only that but they are deeply embedded in modern speech patterns. The average speaker will us a filler every 4.4 seconds, and some researchers estimate that they constitute 2 out of every 100 words we say.

Quartz writer, Susmita Baral digressed, when representing the above findings: “Not only might filler words be inevitable, it’s possible they’re actually a useful part of our linguistic evolution. In fact, they might even be beneficial..”

Research has shown now that perhaps ‘like’ and ‘um’, don’t really deserve the bad rep they’ve received (and neither do you). Here’s why:

Research showed that 1) it’s more about how you use these words (being more conzignant with them), 2) some sentence-fillers are better than others and 3) the use of these non-words could actually work towards:

  • people understanding you better
  • perceiving you as more conscious of what you say, thereby thoughtful

The above is not to say we should continue to pepper them in our speech, but to say that they are harmless and perhaps advantageous when used more mindfully ; less, but specifically for effect and to add weight to a sentence.

So how do we learn to use these words to our advantage?


Steven D. Cohen, professor of communication at the University of Baltimore says that certain words are more frowned upon than others. “People know that ‘um’ and ‘uh,’ for instance, are ‘bad’ pervasive filler words. People are more forgiving, perhaps, when it comes to ‘I mean’ or ‘like.’”

A 2001 study showed that ‘uh’ can help listeners follow what you say by providing a pause for them and yourself to collect your thoughts. The study also found that ‘um’, conversely had no effect. Authors think this may be because uh signals a ‘short upcoming delay’ and um signals a long delay ahead.


Baral explains that there are two places where these spontaneous speech fillers most commonly appear: at the beginning and in the middle. Cohen says that in the beginning you are most likely to say ‘um, uh, so’, and ‘like, you know, I mean’ inbetween. “Of the two, filler words located in the middle of a sentence — also known as discourse markers — are not as noticeable”, she says, “..  than those in the front and tail end of a thought.”

Meaning it’s better to start your sentence on a sure foot, and then take a little time in the middle to gather your words, as what you say is more likely to not be perceived as a filler word at all.


In an article by Science of Us, a study showed that people who use ‘like’, are proven to be more conscentious and thoughtful. Thje authors say the reason for this correlation 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.” They put more thought into what they say, because they are more aware of what they are saying and it’s effect.

In a study by University of Rochester in 2003, researchers concluded that space fillers actually help with comprehension. They give listeners more time to comprehend what is being said, as the sentence is easier to follow (due to a pause). Which brings us to the conclusion. Never underestimate the power of an actual pause. “A simple pause can have a dramatic impact on our filler word use and how other people perceive us.”, says Cohen. “We are conditioned to give immediate responses. We don’t allow ourselves to think. Instead, we share the first thing that pops into our head.”

So next time, when in doubt, pause. And if you do use filler words, like and I mean are much more effective than uh and um.

Most importantly, remember that whatever you’re saying is more important either way.

Written for Marie Claire SA by Zoya Pon.

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