Using “Pause” Words

The world that we live in is constantly changing and we often get distracted by one thing or another, and disregard our verbal intonation or verbal…language. Why do people use words such as “like” and “um”? Do we REALLY need them in our vocabulary, or can we replace them with a good ol’ pause, while we think to construct an answer? Is it necessary to use words such as “um” in our communication?

As I was listening on a talk show on my favourite radio station, I couldn’t help but notice the interviewee kept pausing after every 2 words, his favourite word being “um”. This person, who is middle aged and has higher level education, holds an important position in the company and was interviewed by one of the top 3 radio stations in Canada. I was baffled as I kept hearing “umm” before every answer he gave.

According to the dictionary, this is actually a word, representing an “exclamation – expressing hesitation or a pause in speech”. But how healthy is this in daily verbal communication? Wouldn’t it be enough for us to use body language to communicate that we are holding a pause before giving an answer? Whenever I have conversations with people who use “um” constantly, I always wonder WHY this happens and HOW can we stop it?

Another word that I find people tend to use is “like”, and not in means of comparison, but rather a pause while thinking for an answer. I recently watched a YouTube video in which the girl that was speaking used the word “like” after every 3-4 words or so. There was no rational reasoning for using this word, and yet…she kept doing it. This is not the first time I heard this word over and over again in conversations (and even presentations) and sadly, it was people whom I would have expected more from.

I am not a communications expert, but I always enjoyed learning English and have been bilingual since I was 5. In my maternal language I don’t remember using such “filler” words in our communication. Growing up, a lot of communication with my peers was done non-verbally by using body language. Having spent the last 11 years in Canada, has opened up my eyes about human differences (that unfortunately for people who only live in one country, might be impossible to recognize). It seems to me that in North America people tend to use words such as “like” and “um” while pausing to think for an answer. Why is that? The question still remains, but here are some tips I find useful when trying to correct myself from communication errors.

1. “Think about what you’re thinking about right now”, author unknown. This is an expression that stayed with me for years, although I cannot remember exactly where I heard it first. To me, this basically says “be aware of your thoughts at all times”. When you are talking to someone, be aware of that conversation and follow the string of ideas. So if you are at an interview, be all there in mind, body and spirit.

2. Take your time answering questions. If you are asked a question that you are not sure how to answer, take your time. Ideally, you would already know any important interview questions well before the interview, but if that doesn’t happen, you can still have a successful interview. If you start a sentence and realize you cannot find your words, instead of starting to “ummm”, try to end your sentence in a coherent way, and then take a 5-6 second pause to form another idea.

3. Always be aware of your intonation and pitch when verbally communicating with someone. This can also be referred to as loudness or voice control. When you are aware of loudness (which can be easily noticed), you tend to be more aware of the things you say as well.


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