Why men say ‘uh’ and women say ‘um’

“Um” and “uh” barely qualify as words. They seem more like sounds that punctuate what you’re really trying to say.

But your “uhs” and “ums” might actually say a lot about you.

If you tend to “uh” more than “um,” chances are, you’re a man. In a recent post on the linguistics blog Language Log, linguistics professor Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania wrote about an interesting gender split in these “filler words.”

He examined audio samples from 11,972 English speakers in two data sets from Penn’s Linguistic Data Consortium and found men say “uh” 250 percent more than women, while women say “um” 22 percent more than men.

Something funny happens when men and women talk to each other — they tend to use the filler word preferred by the opposite sex more often. When a man is talking to a woman he says “um” about 8 percent more than when talking to a man. When a woman is talking to a man, she says “uh” 20 percent more than when talking with a woman.

Both sexes say “uh” and “um” less often as they age. But, overall, men use filler words 38 percent more often than women do.

So … okay … so … what does this mean?

Liberman put the question to the crowd.

“I’m surprised to see that men use filled pauses more than women; I would have expected the opposite,” one commenter wrote. “For either, though, I wonder whether it has to do with “I’m still making noise here and therefore haven’t given up the floor,” whereas an unfilled pause would encourage someone else to begin speaking? Sort of a vocal marking of territory.”

“I suspect men use /uh/ as a place-holder. Women use /um/ as a backchannel indicating, ‘that’s interesting, I’m thinking about it,’ ” another commenter said. (The “backchannel” refers to listener noises such as “mhm,” “uhuh” and “yeah,” as New York magazine explained.) 

The latter theory resonated with Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen, who discussed the research with New York magazine’s Melissa Dahl.  However Tannen, whose work focuses on gender differences in communication, cautioned against reading too much into the study, given the lack of information about conversational context.

Tannen said: “I would reframe this in my own terms by observing that women using ‘um’ as backchannel is focused out — by indicating ‘I’m listening,’ it’s taking into account the interaction between listener and speaker. In contrast, men using ‘uh’ as a place holder is focused in — it’s about the speaker’s own internal cognitive process. I’ve observed this difference in many gender patterns of language use.”

“Uhs” and “ums” might indicate a speaker is more likely to consider what he or she wants to say and how to say it.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found that “uh,” “um” and other filler words including “I mean,” “you know” and “like,” were more common among women, young people and “more conscientious” people.

“The possible explanation for this association is that conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings,” the researchers wrote. “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.”

The study turns some female stereotypes on their head, wrote Elizabeth Ballou for the blog Bustle: “These findings put a new spin on what’s often called ‘valley girl talk,’ usually in a derogatory manner that’s associated with Karen from Mean Girls and Elle Woods from Legally Blonde … Since these perceptions apply disproportionately to women, like other perceived verbal tics, moving towards a better understanding of such speech patterns could also be beneficial in preventing the ‘airhead’ or ‘weak’ stereotype that can get slapped onto female-gendered speech.”

Given recent heated debates about “vocal fry” — the so-called “creaky voice” that one study said made it harder for young women to get jobs — “uh” vs. “um” may escalate the gendered-speech arms race. It’s already pretty heated, as Jezebel conveyed last year in a headline: “Women, Stop Talking. Old Men Don’t Like How You Speak.”

h/t Slate

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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