Choosing Uh or Um May Impact Your Career

It's no surprise that we evaluate each other by the way we speak. But new research finds something as simple as the choice between “um” and “uh” can affect how we're perceived, particularly at work.

According to research by the University of Pennsylvania’s Mark Liberman, men choose “uh” twice as often as women do, while women use “um” 22 percent more frequently than men. Furthermore, the use of “uh” increases with age across the gender spectrum, although men outnumber women in the “uh” ranks at any age point.

Liberman, a linguist, argues that the difference between “um” and “uh” could be interpreted as indicative of the speaker’s overall fluency. In an email to The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan, he explains that:

"People tend to use 'um' when they're trying to decide what to say, and 'uh' when they're trying to decide how to say it. As people get older, they have less trouble deciding what to say (because they know more stuff), and more trouble deciding how to say it (because they know more words and fixed phrases, and so have a harder time making a choice). As a result, older people use fewer 'um's and more 'uh's."

In reading this research, you might draw the conclusion that men tend to speak with higher fluency and intellect, giving the appearance that they “know more stuff,” like older, more experienced speakers of both genders. While the study does not suggest that men are, in fact, more knowledgeable than women, the issue is the perception. In a social climate where women in the workplace are scrutinized (there are CEOs and then there are female CEOs) the perception that men speak with more knowledge and experience is troubling.

In reality, it seems doubtful the use of “um” over “uh” can actually tell us much about competence. Men are socialized to speak up, while women are taught to demur, and Liberman indeed argues that perhaps “[w]omen are more communicatively circumspect than men.” Khazan notes that “um,” frequently used to signal a longer pause, might indicate “women's overall linguistic cordiality.” Instead of a lack of fluency, women may simply be displaying a different socialization: to be polite. While that’s certainly less galling than the perception of incompetence, it presents the classic woman-in-the-workplace trap: one can either be circumspect, competent but deferential and polite, or decisive and capable at the expense of the expected cordiality. Guess which one is most effective at work?

But it's a catch-22. If women stray from the friendliness and politeness that their language signals in favor of a more masculine-associated decisiveness of language, they risk being tagged with particularly gendered assessments such as “cold,” or “hard to work with” (take Jill Abramson, the New York Times's top editor who was fired in part for her "brusque" management style). Nevertheless, it hardly seems worth it for women to dedicate any time to considering their “uh” or “um” choice. Assuming that the difference between “uh” or “um” should be given equal consideration to professionalism and competence misses the point entirely: that whether or not a woman is perceived as polite has little to do with how competent she is in her job.

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